Valley Waterways Polluted By Livestock Industry

The Problem

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, while famous for its cultural heritage and natural beauty, also hosts a thriving livestock and poultry industry. The runoff from all this livestock and poultry manure ends up in Shenandoah waters, adding to pollution that threatens to disrupt fishing, swimming, rafting, and other recreational uses that valley residents and visitors have long enjoyed. Most of the manure from the 159 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and 528,000 cows raised annually in the valley’s Shenandoah, Augusta, Page, and Rockingham counties is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but 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.


Virginia considers a waterway unsafe for swimming and other forms of contact recreation if concentrations of E. coli, a bacteria found in the gut of warm-blooded animals, exceeds 235 units per 100mL of water. State water testing in the Shenandoah Valley’s waterways from October 1, 2015, through September 30, 2020, indicate that 68 percent (84 of 123) of monitoring sites that were sampled at least once had too much fecal bacteria for safe swimming or water contact recreation. From January through September 2020, 50 percent of locations sampled (12 of 24) were unsafe. That was a slight decline from the 40 percent of sampling locations that had unsafe E. coli levels in 2019 (14 of 35). However, the state sampled only about half as many locations in 2019 and 2020 as it had in previous years.

The number of unsafe sampling sites was highest in 2018. Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality suggest that bacteria levels in the Shenandoah’s waterways tend to be higher in years with more precipitation, as more rain washes more sediment, fertilizer and other pollutants off the land.

In April 2019, EIP and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a study of aerial photographs of the livestock industry in the Shenandoah Valley that showed that 81 percent of farms in the state’s two largest farming counties—Augusta and Rockingham—failed to fence their cattle out of streams. An examination of 1,676 Google Earth images of livestock farms with rivers or streams found that only 19 percent of them (321 out of 835) had fenced their cattle out the waterways. The rest 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 them.

Bacteria Levels and Swimming Safety in Shenandoah Waterways

Shenandoah Bacteria Map

The interactive map below shows where waterways are unsafe for swimming and other contact recreation, based on water samples collected by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality between  October 2015 and September 2020. It also shows where waterways have been listed as impaired due to high bacteria levels, and identifies those that still need clean-up plans (TMDLs) to reduce bacteria levels.”



EIP has recommended that Virginia take several steps to reduce agricultural pollution in the Shenandoah, including:

  • establishing a better system for collecting and disposing of surplus livestock manure;
  • requiring fertilizer management plans for all farms that spread manure;
  • increasing inspections and enforcement;
  • requiring all farmers to fence their cattle out of public waterways;
  • and requiring state notifications about when water is unsafe for swimming.

Related EIP Reports and Press Releases

81% of Farms Fail to Fence Their Cattle Out of Streams in VA’s Largest Agricultural Counties (April 4, 2019)

Virginia Monitoring Data Show Shenandoah Valley Waters Remain Bacteria Hotspot (August 30, 2018)

Report on Livestock Pollution in Shenandoah Valley Documents Manure, Bacteria and Algae Overload Harming Recreation on River (April 26, 2017)