Removing Cattle from the Shenandoah: Progress and Escalating Action

Progress:

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The Shenandoah Riverkeeper is continuing to vigorously push for the removal of cattle herds from the Shenandoah River and its tributaries. Despite the fact that we have seen progress by successfully prompting dozens of landowners to remove their herds from the river, it’s become clear that escalating advocacy is required to meet our goal of a 100% cattle free Shenandoah.  Shenandoah Riverkeeper is gearing up for the next phase of our campaign designed to build on our successes to date.

As reported in our Fall Newsletter,  Shenandoah Riverkeeper reached an agreement with Sandy Adams, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services (VDACS) and her staff, to respond to all future legitimate Agricultural Stewardship Act (ASA) complaints by requiring measures that “prevent or cease” the water pollution, consistent with the statute.  Previous actions by VDACS only sought to “reduce” pollution, and failed to lead to meaningful reductions in cattle causing degradation of water quality.  As we reported to our supporters at the time, Shenandoah Riverkeeper felt this was a MAJOR step forward, setting the stage to get the cattle herds permanently out of the river.  

While we’ve made significant headway, we still face a lengthy and laborious process.  Because the ASA is an entirely citizen complaint driven process, without formal legal action farmers and landowners feel no external pressure to remove their herds from the river.  Of the 72 original landowners with cattle in the river, we are now down to about 36 individuals who, despite 2 years of our campaign, the availability of 100% state and federal funding for removal, and unrealized Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Goals, have failed to remove and exclude their cattle from the river.

Escalating Action:

In an effort to ramp up the pressure, Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf and Agricultural Project Manager Alan Lehman recently sent out 36 letters to the remaining river herd landowners, asking them to contact us and explain their plans to prevent cattle from entering the river or its tributaries.

We have received a range of responses from about a dozen recipients of our letter.   In some cases, they calmly explained the various options they have employed to prevent cattle from entering the river, while others reiterated the financial or operational challenges they have in keeping cattle from the river. 

For some farms, fencing cattle is a true financial hardship and without subsidies or cost-share programs it will be difficult for them to make real and permanent change to their operations.  Other farms are leased out and the rental farmer has no incentive to remove his herds from the river, as it makes his watering responsibilities more difficult and time consuming.  We do not believe the latter excuses from these rental farmers are justifiable.  In essence, we do not believe that Shenandoah Valley residents, visitors and those living downstream should have their use and enjoyment of the river curtailed so a rental farmer can maximize his profits.

Virginia has been pursuing measures to meet its Chesapeake Bay cleanup obligation of removing 95% of herds in the Bay drainage, including voluntary initiatives aimed at reducing the sediment and nutrient load entering the Bay from Virginia.  Governor McAuliffe is expected to sign an agricultural bill that includes a Best Management Practices component, a cost-share funding line item requiring at least $19.6 million to be used to fence livestock out of streams.  While that may sound generous, the Virginia Farm Bureau has reported a funding shortfall of over $65 million in unfunded cost-share applications for stream fencing, leaving a sizable gap of $45 million.

A Small but Important Step:

Following our October meeting with VDACS, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper submitted its first river herd complaint on a Rockingham County farm.  VDACS recently determined the complaint to be founded, meaning it will likely require the farmer to take measures to prevent and cease, not just reduce, the pollution.  We are closely following this case to see if the approved VDACS plan does, in fact, adhere to this statutory requirement in the ASA.  We are also carefully reviewing the other river herds that continue to violate the ASA statute so that we can select the appropriate herds for an ASA complaint submission.

This campaign has proved to be controversial from the start, partly because our position is that it is no longer voluntary for landowners along public stretches of the Shenandoah to continue allowing their herds to enter and spoil the river.  We will continue to update members in future newsletters about progress and setbacks as they develop and hope members continue to help us watch the river for new river herds or regressions in already improved sites.  We have sensed for a while that this campaign will require ongoing and continued vigilance in order to complement our direct action.