About three-quarters of Virginia’s water monitoring stations in the Shenandoah Valley found levels of fecal bacteria in the first half of 2022 that exceeded EPA recommendations to warn people about the health risks of swimming or splashing in water.
Seventy-six percent of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality sampling sites (44 of 58) in the Shenandoah waterways from January 1 to July 12 this year (the most recent data available) had levels of coli bacteria that were unsafe for swimming or recreation, according to an analysis of state monitoring numbers by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. In 2021, 60% (29 of 48) of the valley’s water monitoring stations did not meet the criterion. But those numbers are a slight improvement, albeit a temporary one, according to the independent environmental monitoring group EIP.
Both the first half of 2022 and all of 2021 had bacteria numbers below the 2015 to 2020 average, when nearly 80 percent of samples contained unhealthy levels of bacteria. Lower levels of precipitation in 2021 may have temporarily reduced manure runoff and other pollutants that are raising bacteria levels in rivers and streams.
To examine an online map with details of Virginia’s bacteria surveillance results in locations up and down the Shenandoah Valley, and where it is safe to swim, click here.
“Bacteria levels in the Shenandoah River remain extremely high, and Virginia needs to do more to encourage—or require—fencing of riverside livestock and prevent chronic overuse of manure on farm fields,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of Environmental Safety. project. “The Shenandoah Valley is a treasure that deserves better protection. We recognize that Virginia is taking steps to increase funding for best farm management practices, including by adding streamside fencing, and that is commendable.”
In March 2022, the Virginia General Assembly approved a record $265 million for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for “best management practices” to combat pollution on farms — including downstream livestock fencing and other steps to reduce runoff in waterways.
But despite Shenandoah’s bacteria levels continuing to rise, Virginia has not posted any signs warning rafters, kayakers, or swimmers about bacteria levels — as it regularly does with warnings for swimming on ocean beaches that contain high levels of bacteria. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends cautioning swimmers at concentrations of coli bacteria Bacteria exceed 235 CFU per 100 milliliters of water.
Approximately 160 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and 528,000 cows are raised annually in Augusta, Page, Shenandoah and Rockingham counties in the Shenandoah Valley. Most of their manure is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but it contains far more phosphorous than crops need to grow. Excess manure seeps pollutants into groundwater and rain often washes them into surrounding streams.
Bacteria levels in waterways are known to increase after periods of heavy rainfall because the rain washes away fertilizer and sediment into rivers and streams. Total rainfall in Harrisonburg, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, was significantly lower in 2021 (about 37 inches) than the 2015 to 2020 annual average (46 inches). Lower rainfall in 2021 could have temporarily lowered bacteria levels that year. Full figures are not available yet for 2022.
Fecal bacteria levels in Shandawa waters, 2015-2022
In April 2019, the Environmental Safety Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a study titled “Live Fencing in the Shenandoah Valley” that used aerial photographs of the livestock industry to show that 81 percent of farms in the state’s two largest farming counties—Augusta and Rockingham—failed to isolate their livestock from streams, This contributed to bacterial contamination.
That low fencing rate was despite Virginia’s pledge to the Environmental Protection Agency that 95 percent of streams across pastures will have livestock fencing by 2025 to meet the goals of the state’s cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay.
The release of the April 2019 report prompted the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to conduct its own aerial survey of the cattle fence. Then Virginia legislators agreed to increase funding and reimbursement rates to encourage more farmers to erect riverside cattle fencing. Lawmakers also passed a law allowing state officials to impose a riverside livestock fencing if the agricultural sector fails to meet Gulf Bay pollution reduction targets by 2025.
As a result of increased funding, an increasing number of farmers in Virginia have begun enrolling in the state’s program to install a livestock fence. In Augusta and Rockingham counties, the number of farmers who signed up for the downstream fencing program increased from 26 in fiscal 2019, to 38 in fiscal 2020, to 55 in fiscal 2021, and 40 in fiscal 2022, according to data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. .
For more details on monitoring bacteria in the Shenandoah Valley, click here.
In October 2019, Virginia removed the “shore activity value” for E. coli in freshwater areas, an incentive value for the potential health risks for people swimming or recovering in waters containing more than 235 E. coli counts/100ml of water. . The Commonwealth no longer has an onshore warning value for freshwater areas such as the Shenandoah River and does not issue any warnings when fecal bacteria levels are high in these areas.
However, despite Virginia’s change, the EPA continues to recommend that states warn swimmers of potential health risks when the number of E. coli exceeds 235 E. coli counts/100 ml of water. So the Environmental Safety Project in its annual report on the issue uses this level of bacteria as a measure of the potential threat to recreation from water in contact with water.
(From the release of the Environmental Integrity Project. EIP is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and advancing policy to protect public health and the environment.)