76 Percent of Water Monitoring Locations Above EPA’s Recommendations for Water Contact Recreation in January through Mid-July
To examine an online map with details about Virginia’s bacteria monitoring results in locations up and down the Shenandoah Valley, and where it is safe to swim, click here.
Washington, D.C. – About three quarters of Virginia’s water monitoring stations in the Shenandoah Valley found levels of fecal bacteria so high in the first half of 2022 that they exceeded EPA recommendations for warning people about the health risks of swimming or splashing in the water.
Seventy-six percent of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality sampling locations (44 of 58) in Shenandoah waterways from January 1 through July 12 of this year (the most recent available data) had levels of E. coli that were unsafe for swimming or recreation, according to an analysis of state monitoring numbers by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. In 2021, 60 percent (29 of 48) of the water monitoring stations in the Valley did not meet the standard.
Both the first half of 2022, and all of 2021, had lower bacteria numbers than the average for 2015 to 2020, when almost 80 percent of samples had unhealthy levels of bacteria. Lower rainfall levels in 2021 may have temporarily reduced the runoff of manure and other pollutants that drive up bacteria levels in rivers and streams.
“The bacteria levels in the Shenandoah River are still too high, and Virginia needs to do more to encourage –or require — streamside livestock fencing and prevent the chronic overapplication of manure to farm fields,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The Shenandoah Valley is a treasure that deserves better protections. We do recognize that Virginia is taking steps to increase funding for farm best management practices, including by adding streamside fencing, and that deserves praise.”
In March 2022, the Virginia General Assembly approved a record $265 million for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for farm pollution-control “best management practices” – including streamside livestock fencing and other steps to reduce runoff into waterways.
But, despite the persistently high bacteria levels in the Shenandoah, Virginia has posted no signs warning rafters, kayakers, or swimmers about bacteria levels – as it does regularly with swimming advisories on ocean beaches with high bacteria levels. EPA recommends warning swimmers when concentrations of E. coli bacteria exceed 235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water.
Almost 160 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and 528,000 cows are raised annually in the Shenandoah Valley’s Augusta, Page, Shenandoah and Rockingham counties. Most of their manure is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but it contains far more phosphorus than crops need for growth. The excess manure leaks pollutants into groundwater and is often washed by rain into surrounding streams.
Bacteria levels in waterways are known to increase after periods of heavy rainfall because rain flushes 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 annual average from 2015 to 2020 (46 inches). That lower rainfall in 2021 could have temporarily reduced bacteria levels that year. Complete numbers are not yet available for 2022.
FECAL BACTERIA LEVELS IN SHENANDOAH WATERWAYS, 2015-2022
* Numbers for 2022 are for January 1 through July 12. Water sampling data from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The threshold value used in this chart is EPA’s “beach action value” for swimming, which recommends states warn the public when bacteria levels exceed 235 counts of E. coli bacteria/100 ml water. Annual rainfall data from NOAA for Harrisonburg, Va.
In April 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a study “Livestock Fencing in the Shenandoah Valley,” that used aerial photographs of the livestock industry in to show that 81 percent of farms in the state’s two largest farming counties—Augusta and Rockingham—failed to fence their cattle out of streams, contributing to bacteria contamination.
This low fencing rate was despite a pledge by the state of Virginia to EPA that 95 percent of streams through pastures would have livestock fencing by 2025 to meet the goals of the state’s cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay.
The release of that April 2019 report spurred the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to perform its own aerial survey of livestock fencing. Virginia lawmakers then approved increased funding and reimbursement rates to encourage more farmers to install streamside livestock fencing. Legislators also passed a law that allows state officials to mandate streamside livestock fencing if the agricultural sector fails to achieve Bay pollution reduction goals by 2025.
As a result of the increased funding, an increased number of farmers in Virginia started enrolling in a state program to install livestock fencing. In Augusta and Rockingham Counties, the number of farmers signing up for the streamside fencing program grew from 26 in fiscal year 2019, to 38 in fiscal year 2020, to 55 in fiscal year 2021, and 40 in fiscal year 2022, according to data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
For more details about bacteria monitoring in the Shenandoah Valley, click here.
In October 2019, Virginia revoked its “beach action value” for E. coli in freshwater areas, which is a trigger value for potential health risks for people swimming or recreating in waters with more than 235 counts of E. coli/100 ml of water. The Commonwealth no longer has a beach warning value for freshwater areas like the Shenandoah River and issues no warnings when fecal bacteria levels are high in these areas.
However, despite Virginia’s change, EPA continues to recommend that states warn swimmers of potential health risks when E coli counts exceed 235 counts of E. coli/100 ml of water. So the Environmental Integrity Project in its annual reporting on the issue uses this level of bacteria as a yardstick of potential threat for water contact recreation.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to the enforcement of environmental laws and the strengthening of policy to protect public health and the environment.
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org