EIP Study Demands Stronger Regulation of Livestock Pollution and Health Advisories for Waterways Contaminated with Bacteria
Washington, D.C. – A new report finds that Virginia’s efforts to restore the health of the scenic Shenandoah River are failing because of toothless and absent cleanup plans, a lack of regulations on the livestock industry, and inadequate monitoring.
The report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), “Water Quality in the Shenandoah Valley: Virginia’s Cleanup Plans Fail to Solve Bacteria Problem,” urges Virginia to take strong steps to protect people swimming in waterways contaminated with fecal bacteria, including by issuing health advisories and posting warning signs and by cracking down on manure runoff from livestock operations.
The study found that almost 70 percent of the river and stream miles in the Shenandoah Valley that have been assessed by the state (1,014 of 1,461 miles) had so much fecal bacteria in them that they were considered to be “impaired” for recreational uses in 2020 (using terms used in the federal Clean Water Act for waterways so polluted they require cleanup plan.)
However, those numbers could soon fall – not because the waters are any cleaner, but because Virginia recently revised its water quality standards to tolerate higher concentrations of fecal bacteria, according to EIP’s report.
Almost of half of the impaired waters in the Shenandoah Valley lack either the cleanup plans or implementation plans required by federal and state law. And many of the plans that have been in place for years have failed because they lack any enforcement or funding mechanisms and because monitoring has been inadequate.
“The Shenandoah is such a beautiful and historic place – and such a treasured spot for fishing, tubing, and recreation — Virginia really needs to get more serious about protecting it,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.. “Most of all, Virginia needs to regulate the growing livestock industry to stop the chronic overapplication of fertilizer to farm fields, and mandate livestock fencing along streams.”
Until Virginia’s waters are cleaned up, Schaeffer said, the Commonwealth should raise “no swimming” advisory signs in parts of the Shenandoah that are often used for swimming and tubing but that have unsafe levels of fecal bacteria.
Mark Frondorf, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, said: “Virginia has failed to implement plans already on the books that would actually result in improved water quality in the Shenandoah Valley. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has also assessed a very low percentage of waters, leaving residents guessing whether it is safe to swim and recreate in the rivers and streams.”
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) report is based on an examination of state records and water quality monitoring data, and includes the following findings:
- Under federal and state clean water laws, “impaired” waterways (to use the term in the Clean Water Act for waters that are so polluted they can’t be safely used for swimming, drinking, fishing, or other purposes) are supposed to have cleanup plans and implementation plans. But 47 percent of the waterways impaired by bacteria in the Shenandoah Valley lack either cleanup or implementation plans.
- The cleanup plans (also called Total Maximum Daily Loads or TMDLs) that do exist lack enforcement and funding mechanisms. For example, EIP examined 11 watershed cleanup implementation plans in the Shenandoah Valley, and found that the state was not following it’s the water quality monitoring requirements in 10 of them.
- The cleanup deadlines for four of the implementation plans in the Valley have passed, but the waterways in three of these four remain impaired by fecal bacteria.
- Virginia’s monitoring of water quality is inadequate. Only 21 percent of the rivers and streams miles in the Shenandoah Valley, and 22 percent statewide, have been assessed by the state to determine if they are impaired with pollutants.
- The number of water monitoring sites in the Shenandoah Valley declined from an average of 70 per year from 2015 to 2018, to 30 per year in 2019 and 2020, with many of the excluded sites having the highest levels of bacteria.
- Agricultural pollution, primarily from manure runoff from fields and livestock yards, was a source of contamination for 71 percent (or 723) of the impaired miles of rivers and streams that were assessed in 2020.
EIP’s report also examines how the regulatory landscape is shifting in Virginia. Water quality standards have changed in the Commonwealth, and the changes make it harder for waterways to be designated as impaired in the future – meaning fewer could be aided by cleanup plans.
On October 21, 2019, Virginia changed its standards for the amount of bacteria that is acceptable for water-contact recreation, such as the swimming, tubing, and kayaking that are popular in the summer in the Shenandoah Valley. The state adopted new regulations that tolerate higher concentrations of fecal bacteria (410 units of E. coli bacteria per 100 ml water, instead of 235 under the old standards.) (For specifics, see Appendix C).
Virginia in 2019 also eliminated its fecal bacteria public health warning advisory threshold for swimming in freshwater areas – called the “beach action value.” The Virginia Department of Health continues to use a health warning and monitoring system for saltwater beaches in the state, but has never issued warnings or posted signs to protect people in freshwater areas like those along the Shenandoah River.
Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, said: “Virginia should not implement a two-tiered system that protects saltwater beach goers at the expense of folks living, working and recreating in the Shenandoah watershed. It’s a matter of basic fairness.”
The Environmental Integrity Project’s report makes the following recommendations:
• The Virginia General Assembly and VDEQ need to invest enough in staffing and resources to create cleanup and implementation plans for the nearly half of impaired waterway miles in the Shenandoah Valley that lack one or the other of them today.
• The state should take action to implement the cleanup plans it creates, so that TMDLs are more meaningful. The most important way Virginia could better implement its TMDLs would be to impose regulations that reduce the chronic over-application of manure to farm fields, especially those adjacent to waterways. The Commonwealth should also issue rules to require all farmers to fence their cattle out of streams and rivers.
• The state should tighten up its recently revised water quality standards for bacteria by creating a swimming beach warning standard for freshwater areas and by issuing health advisories on websites and social media and raising “no swimming” signs to warn people in these areas contaminated by fecal pathogens, including in the Shenandoah Valley. The warning signs could include a website or hotline that people could use to get the most recent bacteria monitoring information.
• Virginia should significantly expand its water quality monitoring program statewide, especially in freshwater areas, so that the nearly 80 percent of waterway miles that lack enough data can be evaluated for impairment decisions and cleanup plans.
For a copy of the report, click here.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C., that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health.
Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Frondorf, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, (571) 969-0746) or email@example.com