James Pinsky: Progress is being made on non-point source pollutants

James Pinsky

On April 27 the several newspapers published a story chronicling the excessive E. coli levels in the Shenandoah River.

We are sure the story raised quite a few eyebrows across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. However, none of those raised were ours. The Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District has known about E. coli and lots of other contaminants in our water, known as non-point source pollutants, for decades.

Non-point source pollution generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage or hydrologic modification. Sources of non-point source pollution can include but are not limited to excess fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides from agricultural lands and residential areas; oil, grease and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production; sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding streambanks; salt from irrigation practices and acid drainage from abandoned mines; bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes and faulty septic systems; and atmospheric deposition and hydromodification.

Solving non-point source pollution problems like high levels of E. coli is why we exist. We’re actually one of 47 similar organizations throughout Virginia dedicated to the stewardship of soil and water and the conservation of our natural resources through education and technical assistance in our region, which includes the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren and the City of Winchester.

We, along with an ever-growing list of partners from local, state, federal, nonprofit and the private sectors, including the agriculture community, have and continue to work hand-in-hand to eradicate water and soil quality problems like displaced soil, known as sediment, which is caused by erosion, unhealthy levels of bacteria including E. coli, high levels of chemical elements like phosphorous and nitrogen, and excessive algae blooms which can choke waterways by severely reducing oxygen levels in water.

To better understand the tools we use to fight non-point source pollution, let’s learn more about how non-point source pollution works.

Non-point source pollution, unlike pollution from industrial and sewage treatment plants, comes from many different sources. Agriculture is one source; but, so are seemingly harmless fertilizer improperly used on our lawns and pet waste which gets washed away by rainfall or snowmelt. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters.

The very first tool we use to curb the rise of non-point source pollutants is education. We teach the public about how our ecosystem works including what watersheds are, like the Chesapeake Bay, what a riparian buffer is, when and how to properly use fertilizers and how to employ natural resource management techniques which work best for our sustainability, known commonly as best management practices.

Built upon a foundation of accurate and compelling education and outreach, we help facilitate state-funded best management practices for agricultural and urban landowners which directly reduce non-point source pollutants to improve our soil and water health. So, to answer a request made by the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, Eric Schaeffer, we are working hard to solve non-point source pollution overload problems through science, sweat equity and collaboration across a cornucopia of conservation, agriculture, government, nonprofit, private citizen and business communities, and have been for a long time. It’s one of the reasons why the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality was able to say that Virginia has made significant progress in lowering non-point source pollutant levels statewide with significant future actions already planned. In fact, a summary of future actions agreed upon by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to help address excessive algae blooms in the Shenandoah River and the rest of Virginia is available to the public by visiting the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s website, www.deq.virginia.gov

The April 27 article correctly states there is far more work to be done.

We agree and invite others to join us as we continue to work diligently within our communities to facilitate best management practices like building fences to keep livestock out of waterways, establishing and restoring riparian buffers to filter sediment and mitigate other non-point source pollutants, establishing cover crops to hold soils in place, and facilitating the use of nutrient management plans to help landowners be proactive in improving their soil and water health. We’ve also spearheaded land conversions from crops to pasture/hay use which requires less nutrient inputs for successful farming and we absolutely love planting some of conservation’s best front line soldiers – trees.

To Schaeffer’s request that Virginia mandate stream exclusion and fund landowners who cannot afford such a mandate, we say that while all of our best management practices are voluntary, which, history has proven time and again as the preferred method for collaborative results, Virginia has been funding the use of best management practices for decades through cost share and or the use of state tax credits.

The following information regarding the use of financial assistance for the implementation of best management practices to help stop non-point source pollutants from hurting waterways including the Shenandoah River across our district from July 1997-May 2017 was compiled by Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. We have protected 176.05 miles of streams with fencing through a Virginia cost share program totaling $7,065,635.32 with an additional $375,944.93 worth of Virginia tax credits provided. Those 176.05 miles of fence also helped create 777.1 acres of riparian buffers. We placed cover crops on 50,449.95 acres through a Virginia cost share program totaling $1,652.758.95 with an additional $101,075.34 worth of Virginia tax credits provided. A total of 79,344.03 acres have used nutrient management practices at a cost of $419,694.56 worth of Virginia cost share funding and an additional $2,068.50 worth of Virginia tax credits, and we have converted 7,167.81 acres of cropland to pasture/hay usage at the cost of $1,181,685.92 worth of Virginia cost share funding with an additional $108,058.30 worth of Virginia tax credits provided. We have also helped facilitate tree plantings amassing 956.64 acres totaling $149,181.50 in Virginia cost share spent and $1,384.39 worth of Virginia tax credits provided. These figures don’t include any additional best management practices which were installed voluntarily throughout our district without the use of state funds.

We are pleased to see organizations like the Riverkeepers and the Environmental Integrity Project shed some more light on the ongoing battle to reduce and eliminate non-point source pollution in the Shenandoah River and its tributaries. We hope their outreach results in more people becoming aware of and participating in the ongoing efforts we have been involved with for decades. After all, progress is being made thanks to the collaborative work of a lot of great organizations.

Yes, there is more work to be done. Join us.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.