BIG Leap in Removing Cattle Herds From the River

Last month, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Mark Frondorf, and Agricultural Program Manager, Alan Lehman, made substantial progress in convincing the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services (VDACS) to develop a more effective approach to permanently removing cattle herds from the Shenandoah River in support of our “Get The Cattle Out” Campaign.

On Wednesday, October 21, Frondorf and Lehman went to Richmond and met with the Commissioner of VDACS, Sandy Adams, along with her staff, to discuss the cattle herds still accessing the Shenandoah River and the Agricultural Stewardship Act (ASA) complaint process. The ASA provides the legal mechanism for Shenandoah Riverkeeper or any Virginia Citizen to file Agricultural pollution complaints for any farm draining to any Virginia waterway.

The Meeting

Armed with a legal brief produced by our in house counsel, Frondorf led the meeting by pointing out the Act (ASA) Itself specifically states that as a result of a founded complaint, “the owner or operator shall submit to the Commissioner and district an agricultural stewardship plan that includes stewardship measures needed to prevent or cease the pollution [italics added].”

Cows cause erosion of the river banks.

But in at least five instances, Shenandoah Riverkeeper demonstrated to the Commissioner, VCAC’s approved plans did not prevent or cease the pollution – only reduced it at best – in defiance of ASA Guidelines Section G. Consequently, these five cattle herds continue to pollute the river even after the landowners have enacted their own plans. In order to show the Riverkeeper perspective, Lehman presented detailed images of the problems before our complaint and the problems persisting afterward. VDACS acknowledged our viewpoint and appeared appreciative of our efforts to alert them of this deficiency and backsliding behavior. They also agreed that in a time of constrained budgets, repeated investigations was not a good use of staff resources.

As a result of Riverkeeper’s presentation, Commissioner Adams stated that going forward, all ASA plans approved by VDACS will include stewardship measures that prevent or cease the pollution. We feel that this could be the most important step we’ve made yet in getting the cattle herds permanently removed from the North Fork, South Fork and Main Stem Shenandoah.

In addition, we obtained agreement that buffer zones between feedlots and streams need to be expanded in order to properly block or absorb runoff from those areas where manure builds up.

Our Concession

During the meeting with the Commissioner, Shenandoah Riverkeeper agreed to work with VDACS by not forwarding all 34 complaint packages it had readied for submission at once.  Instead, Shenandoah Riverkeeper will rank order their cases from most to least problematic and submit them in a measured fashion over the next year so as to not overwhelm the ASA staff who work to honor a goal of completing investigations within 21 day of receipt.

While our concession means we will miss our “Get The Cattle Out” Campaign goal of removing all of the cattle from the Shenandoah by December 31, 2015, there is also a substantial benefit to our new measured approach. Cattle herds rotate in and out of certain pastures through the year. Now we can be careful to pick and choose when we submit each complaint in order to increase the likelihood that the cows will be in the pasture adjacent to the stream and also IN the river when the actual investigation is conducted. This will be necessary for the agency to find the pollution. While Shenandoah Riverkeeper would prefer having the herds removed from the river as quickly as possible, this arrangement will ensure a healthier river over the long run by ensuring the pollution is witnessed and ASA regulations are properly enforced by VDACS.

Kevin Schmidt, VDACS Director of Policy, Planning and Research, acknowledged that when the ASA first came into existence it was a learning experience for VDACS, farmers and all other parties involved in the complaint process. Over time, their dealing with ASA complaints has evolved and matured. Plans approved early in the ASA’s existence would not be approved today. Going forward, Schmidt expressed confidence that future plans will reflect this change in maturation and prevent or cease the pollution – not just reduce it.

We don’t mind expressing disappointment that we didn’t reach our goal by December 31st 2015 of 100% removal.  We had hoped that landowners would all take advantage of Virginia’s unprecedented program paying 100% of the costs to install fencing and develop alternative watering. Our setback, however, informs us that Virginia leaders will need to take a cold hard look at their plan to get to our clean water goals without mandates but through voluntary measures alone. Our “Get the Cattle Out” Campaign has been extremely challenging over the course of the past two years, but from this meeting we come away with a renewed hope that we will finally succeed and permanently remove all of the cattle herds from the Shenandoah.