Cleaning up the Chesapeake begins in Rappahannock

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has spent this summer inland — as in Rappahannock County — working to ensure the cleanliness of the streams and rivers that wind their way into the bay’s 65,000-square-mile drainage basin.

Mike Sands demonstrates an innovative solar powered watering pump at his Bean Hollow Farm in Flint Hill. By Matt Kowalski, Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

More than 150 major rivers and streams flow into the 200-mile-long Chesapeake Bay, several of the waterways originating in Rappahannock County.


“It’s an affordable, portable, off-grid option for grazing cattle in fields without a permanent watering system — which is also good for soil health and cleaner water in streams and ponds. Mike Sands at the farm has said it’s provided real value to the farm. It just wrapped up its run at Bean Hollow and was recently moved to another farm over in the Shenandoah Valley.”

“This watering station is an effective solution to keeping cattle out of rivers,” reacts Sands, who owns Bean Hollow Grassfed. “It provides real value for farmers.”

The mobile unit uses the sun’s energy to pump water from any nearby creek or pond to tanks that replenish watering troughs.

“This mobile watering station can be a real game-changer for a lot of farmers here in Virginia,” says CBF Watershed Restoration Scientist Matt Kowalski. “It’s an affordable, portable, off-the-grid solution for grazing cattle in fields that don’t have a permanent watering system. Farmers who lease land can move it between farms. Plus, by keeping livestock out of ponds and streams our local waterways stay healthy.”

The unit’s multiple benefits for livestock, farmers, and the environment reportedly include lower cost when compared to installing a well and permanent system (a portable solar unit can be built for less than $6,000); mobility that allows it to travel between fields and from farm to farm so that livestock can graze new areas; improved soil health as cattle don’t put continued pressure around permanent troughs; and cleaner surface water as there is no need for cattle to venture near streams and ponds to drink.

The CBF cites research showing that cattle don’t graze as well when they have to travel more than 800 feet for water. But with this unit cattle can avoid long trips to existing troughs, as CBF Field Technician Alston Horn experienced firsthand when testing the new watering station on a family farm in Mount Solon.

“By being able to contain the cattle in one field and not making them go to another field for water, we can now allow those other paddocks time to rest,” said Horn. “When there is adequate forage we can move the cattle back to those fields.”

The watering station also reduces nutrient pollution from livestock to local rivers and streams. Healthy buffers of native plants, shrubs, and trees along waterways help absorb and filter waste from livestock before it can run off into streams. The watering station means cattle don’t have to get close to waterways, keeping waste out of streams and allowing these buffers to thrive.

For the first time in decades, the health of the Chesapeake Bay reportedly improved in 2015, according to a University of Maryland report, marking three years of gains over the past four years.

CBF is now accepting applications for farmers who would like to try out CBF’s demonstration unit on a temporary trial run. Those interested in applying can contact Matt Kowalski at or 540/233-1066. Two similar solar watering stations in the Shenandoah Valley are in use under a pilot program by Virginia Cooperative Extension.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at