The Chesapeake Bay surely has its share of woes and if I was going to blame one animal for the problems, I would have to side with Mike Massie on humans over cows. [‟How blaming cows for the Bay’s woes could hurt us all”] Mike rightly points out that rampant sprawl development within the watershed has taken a huge bite out of water quality in the Bay. I agree that fixing up the Bay will require a long hard look at how we deal with our urban and suburban causes of pollution.
As far as agriculture is concerned, for the Bay’s sake I worry more about chicken and hog houses in the watershed that daily produce mountains of manure effluence — far more than the nutrients load of Rappahannock County cows.
However, pointing fingers downstream only really gets us so far. I have never been a huge fan of using the Chesapeake Bay as a gauge for water quality in any one community. Trying to measure local water quality by looking at our percentage contribution to the toxic soup in the Bay is a poor measure. There is water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, and there is water quality here in Rappahannock County. The answers to clean water in our community do not lie downstream; they lie in our own backyards.
When the Department of Environmental Quality tests water quality in Rappahannock, they test just that — local water right here. Luckily, we lie at the source of the entire watershed and are in the enviable position of not being downstream from anyone but our own neighbors. Therefore, when our rivers have excessive amounts of bacteria and/or other pollutants we need to look here within our own community for answers.
So what do we find in our backyard? Many rivers and tributaries here exceed acceptable levels of fecal coliform and e-coli bacteria; the pollution mix comes from a number of sources, including failing septic systems, wildlife and livestock.
So what has this community done about it? Many citizens have participated in a cost-share program to help fix leaking and failing septic systems; citizens in Washington agreed to install a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system; and many local farmers have, and continue to, fence cattle and other livestock, out of rivers. I dare say most of these actions were not done based on a fear of regulation or even because of the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, such steps were taken because people here care about local water quality and want the water leaving their land as clean as possible for themselves and their neighbors.
Local groups have been working to raise money and write grants to help pay for fencing and water infrastructure, to help fix problems that farmers identify in consultation with the local soil and water conservation district staff, and to help landowners pump out septic tanks and fix drain fields.
The debate surrounding the Chesapeake Bay pollution and how to clean it up involves much posturing, but we should not let this poison local conversation about avenues for achieving better water quality here. In Rappahannock, as is often the case, we decided to take our own, proactive approach — one which requires us to accept responsibility as a community for achieving improved, local water quality.
I fail to see any inconsistency in saying that I strongly support agriculture, but don’t want livestock defecating directly in our rivers — or that I like my neighbors, but don’t want them pumping household waste directly in the streams either. We do not have to choose between regulations or doing nothing. I know that we as a community can support our neighbors, farmers and good water quality. These are not mutually exclusive goals.