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A River Runs Through It: The Shenandoah, Virginia's Breadbasket and Algae

Jessie Knadler

The Middle River flows through Bobby Whitescarver and his wife Jeanne Trimble Hoffman’s 40 acre farm in Swoope. It looks like chocolate milk.  “This is the biggest river in Augusta County and it’s the most polluted,” he says.  

A big reason is animal waste. The Middle River flows from farm after farm until joining up with the Shenandoah River about 100 miles downstream, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. A lot of the river banks along the way aren’t fenced, allowing cows and the waste they drop into the river.

Whitescarver’s life’s work is restoring watersheds. He says that when the Middle River flows into their farm it consistently tests four times higher for E.coli than the state standard. "The health department wouldn’t let you swim or wade in it,” he says.

By the time it flows out of their farm, E.coli levels drop by a third because of fencing and other restoration efforts. But it picks again because many farms downstream aren’t fenced. By the time it joins the Shenandoah, the pollution is worse.

Conservationist Herschel Finch says he’s noticed a big change in the Shenandoah since he started fishing there in the late 70s.  “We see periods during the year when the algae pretty much takes over entire sections of the river,” says Finch. “It has a tendency to reach a critical mass where it starts to rot and smell and it becomes almost unusable.”

Why so much algae? Manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. Algae feeds off these two nutrients, creating the thick, smelly algae blooms, which can be toxic.

Keeping cattle out of streams is just one small part of a much larger problem. The Shenandoah Valley is Virginia’s breadbasket, home to hundreds of large scale cattle and poultry operations, which produce millions of pounds of manure every year. Farmers use this manure as fertilizer. But there’s so much of it, the runoff ends up in the river

For years, water conservation groups have been after the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to officially identify the Shenandoah River as “impaired,” a designation that would require the state to do something about the pollution. Specifically, they want the state to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which, among other things, requires permits and pollution controls for big animal feeding operations. But state officials have refused the request because Virginia has no water quality standards for this kind of pollution. "Until we have scientific evidence of exactly what the problem is, we can’t declare an impairment," says DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden, "so if there’s an area with a lot of algae or just looks unappealing, we would encourage people to just avoid that area."

That sounds like stonewalling, says attorney Jennifer Chavez, whose firm represents three citizen groups in a recent lawsuit against the EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act.

“There’s plenty of evidence already,” she says. “The fact that this river is in a state of impairment is apparent to anyone who can see or smell.”

Back upstream at the Middle River, farmer Bobby Whitescarver weighs in on the problem  “Litigation is the tool of last resort. You know, how long have we been trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay? Fifty years! And for people like me, it doesn’t happen fast enough, but it’s happening. It’s getting cleaner, and it starts right here.”

He expects the lawsuit will keep the needle moving forward, however slowly. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association