The water quality of the areas waterways is getting more attention as runoff from the waste of farm animals, failing septic systems, and other sources have driven up levels of E. coli, the bacteria that poses a health risk.
There’s been some progress in the form of farmers digging wells to provide water rather than let cattle linger in streams. Public sewer service has replaced failing septic systems in some areas. But those involved with protecting our water say more can be done.
The problem and the next steps to address it was the focus of a community meeting June 21 at Wakefield School in The Plains. Among attendees were representatives of Fauquier County Community Development, the John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District, Virginia Cooperative Extension.
The session focused on a total maximum daily load (TDML) plan for Goose Creek, as well as Cromwells Run and Little River in Fauquier and Loudoun counties. Excessive E. coli bacteria for the safety of recreational users was identified in Gap Run, Bolling Branch and Crooked Run in a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality report.. They’ve been placed on a list of impaired waters.
TDML is the total maximum daily load, a measure setting an upper safety limit for pollutants.
The DEQ set bacteria TMDL limits for the Goose Creek Watershed in 2003. Population growth since then (the number of households increased 9.5 percent).
That factor will be part of the action plan as will the number of current septic systems and failure rate, numbers of livestock, wildlife estimates, and household pets. All play a role in the E. coli levels found in waterways.
“That whole process – the number loading for each impaired stream we’re using to set goals for the implementation plan. Now, when we’re done with that we’ll apply for grant funds through the EPA,” said May Louise McD Sligh, a water quality specialist with the DEQ.
A second public meeting planned for September will precede the release of a draft implementation plan in December. A complete plan and a technical report should be ready to submit to the EPA in January, Sligh said.
“This is definitely not just a farm problem. We’re looking at septic system failures as well,” Sligh said. Runoff from pet waste left in yards is another source of residential pollution.
It’s an area where government tries to work with land owners cooperatively rather than heavy-handedly.
“We work with the health district to get proposals implemented. We’re getting the word out about residential cost sharing programs,” Sligh said.
Local health departments are charged with enforcement if a problem poses a public health risk.
Organizations such as the Goose Creek Association and the Piedmont Environmental Council promote good stewardship of the land.
Also, the John Marshall Soil and Water District provides technical assistance and education to land owners to protect their natural resources. It’s the first point of contact for farmers seeking cost sharing or tax credit assistance in making environmental friendly improvements to their land.
“The [John Marshall Soil and Water] District is already doing a great job. We’re glad to see the Virginia DEQ starting to do something,” said Lori Keenan McGuinness, co-chair of the Goose Creek Association.
Kinloch Farm in The Plains is among the farms that have fenced off cattle from streams.
“We have a cattle operation. Land is under conservation easement. We’ve fenced out ponds and streams. There used to be cattle running across the stream,” said Kevin Jennings, Kinloch manager.
“The first phase started over 10 years ago. We started fencing the cattle out of sensitive areas. Broad Run comes through the property and crosses under I-66,” Jennings said.
While the farm has tried to do its part, he wonders how much being under the interstate affects water quality.
“I’ve been underneath that bridge. I’ve seen bottles, cans, and plastic. There’s oil and chemicals from the road – I don’t know how much runs off into streams,” Jennings said.
“Cattle, farming, and residents do have an impact to the extent that they’re even studying the impact of pets,” noted Jennings. Wildlife also do their share of spoiling streams, but “we can’t control the wildlife as much.”
Kinloch used cost-sharing programs to dig wells, install a cistern and extend lines to bring water closer to grazing areas so that cattle didn’t get their fill of water, then linger in the streams as they defecated. Jennings and his crew have also set up watering troughs in pastures, built hardened crossings at streams, and reforested areas.
Efforts to improve water quality make sense to the Kinloch Farm manager.
“If we can stop pollutants from going into water sources we don’t have to pay so much to treat it,” Jennings said.
Government assistance programs make it “a win-win” for everyone, he said.
“The environment is winning by getting cattle out of the water source and the taxpayers are winning by getting cleaner water,” he said. “And the farmer gets a lot of infrastructure. I don’t see how a farmer could afford not to do it. I think it’s a great program. We’re actually utilizing the program to everyone’s advantage.
“People can be shy about having government comes to your place, but the local people are on your side. They want you to be successful and to protect natural resources and water is a natural resource worth protecting,” Jennings said.
“Not every farmer is doing it but I think we should be,” he said.
Hollin Farms in Delaplane is another farming operation that’s been doing its part.
Hollins a three-generation farm that invites the public to pick their own fruit and vegetables, raises grass-fed natural beef, and produces hay for horses.
Tom Davenport said they’ve done a lot of fencing off of streams in areas of high runoff where erosion can be a problem..
“We’ve been doing it on and off for 20 years,” he said.
Davenport’s son is an engineer who’s “put up fencing in an efficient and good way.”
The family has three farms totaling about 1,000 acres.
“We’re on a rocky area. We had to make do. We followed the lead of the Green family and Stribling” when it comes to growing and selling produce. “But you can’t raise strawberries and peaches here without pesticides and fungicides.” Stinkbugs also damage the fruit if not stopped.
The farm is at the headwaters of Crooked Run, which flows to Goose Creek and Delaplane.
Davenport, 77, said he’s seen more forests in areas that formerly were farmed.
“Some people have abandoned agriculture. New owners of land don’t know much about it,” he said. “The land has gone natural and owners have let everything grow,” said Davenport. The downside of that is that some invasive species, such as Russian ivy – a vine — have moved in.”