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“Backwater” Issues Are Important, Too

CBF members and friends hear a lot from us about the big, flashy Chesapeake Bay issues – oysters, blue crabs, EPA lawsuits, offshore drilling, bills in Congress, and such.

Today, I’d like to shine a light on another effort under way that isn’t perhaps as sexy or controversial as the “blue water” issues but is no less important. It might even be more so. Call it a “backwater” issue.

Thousands of small creeks and streams feed the large rivers that supply the fresh water and, unfortunately, much of the pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. Some of these small feeder Chesapeakewatershed creeks are hundreds of miles away from the Bay itself, but they are as vital to the Bay’s health as roots are to a tree. Clean streams make for clean rivers, which make for a clean Bay.

Likewise, if many of these small creeks and streams are fouled by pollution, their problems flow downstream and become river problems and ultimately Chesapeake Bay problems. All of this seems rather common-sensical, but it’s amazing how often we seem to miss the connection between the health of the Bay and the health of the Bay’s headwaters.

Three Virginia CBF staffers who don’t overlook that connection are Libby Norris, Mark Wastler, and Alston Horn. Norris is the Virginia watershed restoration scientist, and Wastler and Horn are CBF field technicians. The three work with farmers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to improve the water quality in farm creeks and streams.

Shenwatershed If you look at a map of Virginia, you’ll quickly see that the agriculturally intensive Shenandoah Valley is drained by the Shenandoah River, which flows northward up the Valley to meet the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, W. Va. The Potomac River, of course, is one of the Chesapeake Bay’s major tributaries, supplying 19 percent of the Bay’s fresh water and approximately 20 percent of the Bay’s problematic nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

To clean up the Bay, we must clean up the Potomac. To clean up the Potomac, we must clean up the Shenandoah. And to clean up the Shenandoah, we must clean up the scores of small creeks, streams, and “runs” that snake through the Shenandoah Valley’s famously productive farmland.

DSC_0116 That’s what keeps Norris (right, with Augusta County farmer Ralph Lam), Wastler, and Horn busy. They spend much of their time knocking on farmhouse doors, leaning over fences, and going to farm meetings to talk to farmers and other landowners about water quality, stream health, and farm economics. Their goal is to increase the use among Virginia farmers of what are called “best management practices” -- farming techniques that conserve soil, water, and fertilizer, thereby reducing runoff that can pollute streams.

Working with other conservation professionals in the Valley – state Soil and Water Conservation District staff and federal Natural Resource Conservation Service experts – the three focus on the practices that   have been found to be the most cost-effective for reducing agricultural runoff: fencing livestock from streams, planting forested buffer strips along stream banks, using “no till” techniques, planting winter cover crops, and employing nutrient (fertilizer) management plans.

Most farmers they talk to are not averse to using these practices and “doing what’s right for the Bay.” The hang-up typically is the increased cost. Farmers are businessmen, too, and the decisions they make must help, not hurt, their bottom lines. So Norris, Wastler, and Horn try to match farmers’ individual situations with a variety of government cost-share programs and cobble together cleanup projects and financing plans that are effective and affordable.

M Wastler One of the challenges is engaging farmers who, because of religious or philosophical beliefs, can’t accept government cost-share help. That’s one reason Wastler (left), a cattle farmer and former church pastor, is well suited for the CBF work.

His focus is a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant project targeting three streams in Rockingham County: Muddy Creek, Cooks Creek, and Lower Dry River. All have multiple cattle and poultry farms in their drainage areas, and all three streams are polluted by bacteria and sediment and have unhealthy benthic (bottom-dwelling) critters. The goal of the two-year grant: to fence out livestock along the length of the three streams.

Horn (right), also a Valley cattle farmer, is working as part of a larger NFWF partnership grant aimed at directing increased federal Farm Bill conservation funding toward Virginia farmers. He’s A. Horn focusing his efforts on fencing livestock out of Smith Creek, another polluted waterway in Rockingham and Shenandoah counties.

Norris, who supervises the two, sees a real opportunity for farmers and the Bay. “There is more conservation money available now, and we want to be sure farmers know about it and have the tools and opportunity to use it,” she says. “If we can hook up willing farmers with funding, good things can happen in the Valley and downstream in the Bay.”

So that cleaner backwaters produce cleaner blue waters.

By Chuck Epes



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