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Nearly 200 million chickens, turkeys and cows are making a mess of the Shenandoah River

Children swim near cows wading into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, near the town of Newport, Va., in July. (Mark Frondorf)

As he paddled Virginia’s Shenandoah River on a hot day last July, Mark Frondorf came upon a father and two children. “They were just tubing down the river, just two little munchkins, happy as can be,” he said. It was a idyllic sight — except for the herd of cows Frondorf noticed wading on the water’s edge nearby.

Frondorf looked at the cows, then back at the dad, then again at the cows. Finally, he pulled his canoe alongside the adult. “I was talking with the dad, trying to be as polite as possible,” he recalled. But the Shenandoah riverkeeper knew the cows were defecating — not just that day but many days, raising the levels of E.coli and other bacteria in an area. “Give a bath and scrub them down with soap and everything,” he counseled the father, who gave him an odd look. Frondorf nodded at the animals. “Then he looked at the cows and said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ ”

With summer approaching and boaters, swimmers and others returning for recreation, a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group, affirms Frondorf’s continuing concerns. Farm livestock operations line the forked river with 176 million animals, and an unhealthy amount of the waste they produce finds its way into the water.

The Potomac River in D.C. looks pretty, but be warned: Check with the health department before swimming.

According to the report, which relied on 2014-2016 data from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, about 160 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and half a million cows account for 410,000 pounds of poultry litter and a billion pounds of liquid manure each year in the section of the Shenandoah Valley that includes Page, Rockingham, Augusta and Shenandoah counties.

Farmers apply much of the manure to their fields to grow crops, but the earth can hold only so much before it releases it into the water, usually during rains. Manure is rich with phosphorous and nitrogen, pollutants that algae greedily feed upon. That creates spectacular algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water, creating an environment in which fish can’t breathe — and zones where everything dies.

Different types of algae float with the current and attach to the river bed, coating the floor and killing other marine organisms. Humans who ingest bacteria-infested water rarely die, but the results can be ugly, as the report describes. “Swallowing water with high E.coli levels can cause serious gastrointestinal illness,” including diarrhea and vomiting.

“The state issues advisories to beach goers to stay out of the ocean when bacteria levels do not meet the recreational standard,” the report says. “But the state provides no such notice when the Shenandoah Valley and other rivers and streams are contaminated, even when E. coli levels are more than 100 times the recreational limit.”

Virginia tells rafters, swimmers, anglers and boaters to avoid waters where 10 percent of the samples far exceed the state’s limit for E. coli contamination. But the state tests the Shenandoah Valley and its tributaries only twice a year. Nearly all the stations where the water is monitored were above the threshold 10 percent of the time, and about 20 of the stations exceeded it “at least half of the time,” the Environmental Integrity Project found.

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“Virginia needs to start notifying the public that the Shenandoah Valley’s waterways are unsafe for swimming and tubing — or better yet, the state should solve this overload problem,” Eric Schaeffer, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.

The report was not peer-reviewed or published as a scientific study. Rather, it’s an examination of a large section of the river based on state monitoring on the river and adjacent farms.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality declined to directly respond to the report. “We would prefer not to comment on a report we have not been able to study,” spokesman William Hayden wrote in an email. “Once we see the report and have a chance to look it over, we will be happy to comment.”

But Hayden commented generally about the Shenandoah. The state completes an analysis of the river’s water quality every six years, and the most recent review in 2012 indicated “significant improvements in water quality for bacteria” in 204 of 315 watersheds, Hayden noted. He did not specify whether the improved watersheds included those in the Shenandoah Valley, the focus of the project’s report.

“The results of the trend analysis don’t indicate that Virginia’s waters are free of bacteria,” Hayden wrote. However, it shows that an effort by the state department and localities to reduce bacteria “is resulting in improved water quality.”

Some Virginians who use the river aren’t noticing much change for the better. “My friend and I saw lots of algae, and the fishing was absolutely terrible,” Rodney Milner said in a statement submitted to the agency, according to the Environmental Integrity Project report. “We saw dead fish lying on the bottom of the river and caught very few fish, which is very unusual on this stretch of river.”

And Brian Trow, a fishing guide, wrote that much of “the beauty of floating the rivers of our state is underwater. Looking into a river and seeing nothing but green water, brown and green rocks and smelling the awful smells of rotting algae is very discouraging.”

The report urges Virginia officials to review the farming practices allowed in the Shenandoah Valley. Animal farms outnumber crop farms, spreading far more fertilizer than the land can absorb. The number of broilers, hens and pullets raised in the valley represents more than 65 percent of those in the state, and more than 90 percent of the state’s turkeys are there. Cow manure adds to the 8 billion pounds of phosphorous.

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But the state requires fewer than 13 percent of farms in the area to have management plans for manure use, according to the report.

Among the report’s recommendations is a suggestion that farmers be required to develop nutrient-management plans so they don’t use too much manure as fertilizer. It’s also recommended that farmers annually sample phosphorous and nitrogen concentrations in their soil. Farmers should have to file yearly reports about how manure is applied, the report also says.

Virginia should start requiring farmers to fence in livestock to keep them out of streams, according to the report. Where needed, the state should provide money for the fencing, it adds.

And finally, the report recommends, either the environmental quality or health department should test the Shenandoah more frequently, “especially in warm weather months” when tens of thousands of people are on or in the river.

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