Farmers Talk Watershed Protection: Answers, Compromises Sought At Latest Local Meeting

Lexington News-Gazette                                                                                                                       Lexington, Virginia

Farmers Talk Watershed Protection: Answers, Compromises Sought At Latest Local Meeting

By Roberta Anderson June 30, 2010

It was just over two years ago that state officials told farmers living in the Hays and Walkers creek valleys of northern Rockbridge that their cows were the cause of the pollution in those creeks.

State biologists had just completed a TMDL – total maximum daily load – study for the Hays Creek watershed, as they are in the process of doing for all impaired waterways within the state. Water samples taken in Hays Creek and its tributaries, including Walkers Creek, Moffats Creek and Otts Creek, showed bacteria levels at an overall 34 percent violation rate for fecal coliform contamination, well above the 10 percent level that is considered safe according to state guidelines

Fecal coliform bacteria is found in the intestines of warmblooded animals.

Even Dr. Robert Brent, a biologist for the Department of Environment Quality dryly observed at the time of the study in 2008: “This isn’t rocket science.”

Statistics had been maintained by DEQ on water quality in the Hays Creek watershed that covers 51,444.7 acres in Rockbridge and Augusta counties since 1990. In order to improve the water quality in Hays Creek and its tributaries sufficiently to remove the creek from the state’s impaired list, an 80 percent reduction in fecal coliform deposits from livestock, pasture runoff and cropland runoff would be required.

Making this happen became the responsibility of the community with the help of the Department of Conservation Resources. A community meeting on an implementation plan was held last week at the Rockbridge Baths firehouse with about 35 landowners, mostly Rockbridge residents in attendance.

Because the Hays Creek watershed is an agricultural area, with the exception of the villages of Brownsburg and Newport, it became quickly obvious that the focus of the implementation plan will involve decisions to fence livestock out of the creeks. There are a number of state and federal cost-sharing programs that landowners can apply for to finance stream bank restoration, to fence off waterways from livestock and to install automatic livestock waterers in fields. Compliance with any implementation plan is voluntary.

The meeting began with presentations from Washington and Lee University professors Robert Humston and Laura Henry-Stone, each of whom have received grants to have their students study the pollution in the creek and the resulting impact on residents. A portion of the students’ work focused on a stream bank restoration project on Indian Bottom Farm, a farm located on Walkers Creek Road and owned by W&L alumnus Russell Fletcher III of Middleburg.

Zack Hileman, farm manager at Indian Bottom Farm, later elaborated on the comments made by Humston. Hileman made his observations as farmers gathered with DCR representative Nesha McRae to discuss best management practices that are practical and that could become part of a cleanup plan for the community.

The fencing and stream bank project completed on the farm had been needed because of over eroded banks, Hileman said. Sediment was being washed downstream, and fencing was in danger of being washed away as well.

In other situations, Hileman said, he might advocate flash grazing along creek banks, a practice that would allow cattle to graze along creek banks for a limited time period. Hileman said an overall change in management practices is needed to protect the watershed.

Rockbridge County agricultural Extension agent Jon Repair, who did not attend the meeting, further explained in an interview the concept of flash grazing. Repair said by allowing cattle to graze down the creek banks during limited periods of two or three time per year, the riparian buffer can still be maintained. At the same time, invasive species such as bull thistle can be prevented from taking over and the pasture can continue to grow.

As the discussion at last week’s meeting progressed, it became evident that overgrazing does not appear to be a problem among farmers in the Hays Creek watershed. Most farmers estimated they have between 2 and 2.5 acres of grazing land per cow. Last year, they said, they were selling off their cattle herds; this year, the price of beef is up slightly and farmers are hanging on to their calves, although one man reported the national cattle herd is at the lowest number in history.

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