81% of Farms Fail to Fence Their Cattle Out of Streams in VA’s Largest Agricultural Counties

New Study Reveals Shortfall in Progress toward Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Goal for Fencing.  Following Low Compliance Rate, Virginia May Eliminate Goal.

Washington, D.C. – A study of aerial photographs of the livestock industry in the Shenandoah Valley revealed that 81 percent of farms in the state’s two largest farming counties are failing to fence their cattle out of streams, contributing to high fecal bacteria levels in local waterways and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Shenandoah Riverkeeper examined Google Earth images of 1,676 livestock farms with rivers or streams in Augusta and Rockingham counties and found that only 19 percent of them (321) had fenced their cattle out the waterways, according to EIP’s new report, “Livestock Fencing in the Shenandoah Valley.”

“Clearly, Virginia is falling far short of its own goals of using fencing to protect rivers and streams on farms from the fecal bacteria and pollution of the livestock industry,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.  “It’s time for the Commonwealth to recognize that voluntary actions alone aren’t enough. Virginia should require cattle to be fenced out of streams while providing farmers with 100 percent of the money they need to install these barriers.”

In 2010, Virginia officials promised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as part of the Commonwealth’s official bay cleanup plan, that the state would protect 95 percent of stream footage on farms with fences by the year 2025.

In January 2019, Virginia estimated that farmers had used public funds to install 22 million linear feet of fencing, which would mean that state was at least 19 percent toward its fencing goal for 2025.  Following evidence that the state’s voluntary program is not working to encourage this fencing, state officials are now proposing to eliminate its goal for fencing.

In April, Virginia plans to release a revised bay cleanup plan (called a “Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan for the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load”) that may erase all specific targets for livestock fencing.

“Eliminating this goal would be a big step backward for cleaning up the Shenandoah River and keeping it safe and healthy for swimmers, kayakers and everyone who treasures it,” said Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper.  “Virginia needs to keep its goals in place for reducing agricultural pollution. Livestock fencing is critical for cleaning up the Shenandoah.”

Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said: “Virginia should clean up the Bay, not clean up its goals for reducing pollution from agriculture, the biggest source of pollution in the Chesapeake. The whole point of the Bay cleanup plan launched in 2010 was that it was supposed to be supported by specific, numeric goals and accountability.”

A team of analysts with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project in 2018 examined detailed Google Earth aerial photographs taken in 2017 of 835 farms in Augusta County (Virginia’s second largest agricultural county) that had both streams and livestock, as well as online tax maps of the county.

The results showed that 81 percent of the farms (680 of 835) had not fenced their cattle out of all waterways on their properties, allowing the animals to deposit fecal bacteria, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, into the waterways.

In 2016, Shenandoah Riverkeeper performed a similar survey in neighboring Rockingham County (the state’s largest agricultural county), which found that 80 percent (675 of the 841) livestock farms in the county with streams had not fenced their cows of the waterways.

Virginia does not survey farms in an attempt to determine what percentage fence their animals from waterways.

From 2012 to 2015, Virginia encouraged livestock fencing by offering a special program that provided farmers with 100 percent taxpayer reimbursement for the costs of installing fencing and alterative watering systems for cattle that no longer have access to streams.

But because of insufficient state funding, since 2015, Virginia has been offering only 75 percent reimbursement to farmers for these fences and watering systems, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Virginia’s subsidies for the practice are lower than in neighboring Maryland, which reimburses farmers at an 80 percent rate. Unlike in Virginia, Maryland since 2012 has required farmers to exclude their livestock from waterways.

Keeping cows out of public waterways is voluntary in Virginia. However, for decades, experts have recognized livestock fencing as an important, basic step for reducing water pollution in rural areas, according to a 2015 report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Portions of the Shenandoah River and its tributaries have such high fecal bacteria and nutrient levels they are unsafe for swimming or rafting in the summer and are clogged with algae blooms, according to state water quality monitoring data and a 2017 report by the Environmental Integrity Project. This pollution comes in part from cattle defecating into streams and kicking up sediment, as well as runoff of manure from farm fields.

In its new report, the Environmental Integrity project recommends:

  • Virginia should not eliminate its Chesapeake Bay cleanup goal of protecting 95 percent of streams on livestock farms with fences. A successful Bay cleanup plan will require more – not less – accountability and specific targets, especially from the agricultural sector, the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Commonwealth should start requiring farmers to install livestock fencing along waterways. If this proves politically impossible, Virginia and its counties should use tax incentives to convince farmers to fence their cattle out of waterways or face tax penalties in the form of a reduction in their agricultural tax breaks.
  • The state should return to reimbursing livestock farmers 100 percent of the cost of fencing cattle out of waterways and providing alternative watering systems.
  • Virginia should conduct or fund aerial photo surveys of streamside fencing installation in all parts of the state with livestock. Without this information, the state will not know how far it has to go to achieve its own goals for water quality.


The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.

Media contacts Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, tpelton@environmentalintegiry.org or (202) 888-2703

Mark Frondorf, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, mark@shenandoahriverkeeper.org or (571) 969-0746