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One bad reading triggers the unsafe list for swimming in Shenandoah waters

by Monique Calello

Staunton News Leader


Published 10:16pm ET Oct 16, 2023, Updated 11:37am ET Oct 26, 2023

Original Article:

Water quality monitoring at 40% of the locations tested in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley this year detected levels of fecal bacteria that made the waters unsafe for swimming, tubing, kayaking, or rafting, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Shenandoah Riverkeeper.

The Friends of the Middle River say the numbers can be misleading if you don't understand the testing process.

Both groups agree on two main factors that can influence the tests: animal waste in the water from livestock access to rivers, and rainfall that can wash more manure being used as fertilizer into the streams and rivers.

Waste, weather and fencing: a non-farmer's primer to river health

The Shenandoah Valley has the largest concentration of livestock operations in Virginia, with almost 528,000 cows, 160 million chickens, and 16 million turkeys raised annually in Augusta, Page, Shenandoah and Rockingham counties.

Most of their manure is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but it contains far more phosphorus than crops need for growth. The excess manure leaks pollutants into groundwater and is washed by rain into streams. 

Shenandoah Riverkeeper's Mark Frondorf said that fencing on farms and buffers of trees and vegetations along streams will make the rivers healthier for everyone.

So far this year, 21 of the 52 water monitoring locations in the valley have had levels of E. coli bacteria that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations for swimming or water contact recreation, according to Virginia Department of Environmental Quality data reviewed by the Environmental Integrity Project.   

The 40% number is actually the lowest in the last eight years. Rainfall this year was also the lowest over that period. Less rainfall means less manure is washed off farm fields and into streams and rivers. 

“This does not mean the Shenandoah River is cleaned up, or that the problem of farm runoff pollution is solved," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Virginia should keep up its efforts to convince farmers to fence their livestock out of streams and reduce their overapplication of manure.” 

Where farm pollution-control equals fencing, Augusta County is nowhere near state's 95% goal.

In 2022, the Virginia General Assembly approved a record $265 million for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for farm pollution-control “best management practices” — including streamside livestock fencing and other steps to reduce runoff into waterways. Over 600 farmers signed up for the livestock fencing program in the year that ended July 1, 2023.

Only 33 were in August and Rockingham counties. 

In 2019, fewer than one in five of the livestock farms in the Shenandoah Valley’s biggest livestock counties — Augusta and Rockingham — had fenced their cattle out of streams, which prevents cows from defecating in waterways and kicking in sediment, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Shenandoah Riverkeeper.


So far, this falls far short of a pledge by the state of Virginia to EPA that 95% of streams through pastures would have livestock fencing by 2025 to meet the goals of the state’s cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia lawmakers have boosted state funding to pay for streamside livestock fencing on farms, perhaps as a result of the data from EIP and Shenandoah Riverkeeper.  For more details about bacteria monitoring in the Shenandoah Valley, click here. 

Broad Run watershed tested unsafe once, safe 6 times. It's complicated.

So is 40% of the locations sampled testing unsafe a good number or a bad one?

Friends of the Middle River say you need to see it in context when making decisions about what they call "the safety of water contact recreation."

A sampling location could be added to the “unsafe for swimming” list for a single violation during the sampling season, regardless of how many “clean” samples were collected, said FOMR.

An example: Broad Run, the one site from the Middle River watershed which is in Augusta County. Broad Run was sampled seven times during the review period.

One sample exceeded the EPA recommended BVA Water Quality Criteria value.

"So, yes, this site was one of those that was included in the 40% of sites with exceedances, but the actual rate of violation for this site during the period was 14%," said FOMR.

Friends of the Middle River just wrapped up river cleanups that spanned 29.4 miles of the Middle River and its tributaries resulting in over 1.8 tons of garbage and 204 tires being removed from the river. FOMR’s citizen scientist volunteers provide provisional E. coli data to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that assist with identifying segments of streams that not only have elevated E. coli levels but also segments that show that the water quality has improved with the reduction of E. coli levels:

As of September 2022, the Headwaters Soil and Water Conservation District reported:

  • 91 stream exclusion practices, fencing a total of 6,213 farm animals from 76.5 miles of stream and creating 697.19 acres of buffer

  • 38 cropland conversion practices, converting 746.67 acres from cropland to hay/pasture

  • 32 animal waste practices, storing 33,738.2 tons of waste per year

  • 12,183.22 acres of cover crop planted, preventing excessive soil erosion and preserving nutrients in the soil

  • 8 forestry practices totaling 31.96 acres


The data reported by EIP and Shenandoah Riverkeeper is focused primarily on farmland; it does not address concerns regarding similar stream pollution from residential land, such as pet waste, fertilizer, poorly designed or maintained sanitary disposal systems, said Friends of the Middle River.

"It is up to all of us that live in and visit the Shenandoah River watershed to do our part to protect the health of the Shenandoah River and the tributaries that flow into it," said FOMR.

Friends of the Middle River and the Shenandoah Valley Conservation Collaborative will be hosting a meet and greet to talk about financial assistance that is available throughout state (and federal) funds to support agriculture preservation/conservation practices on private land. Visit the FOMR website to participate.

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