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Farmer fights cows, water pollution

WIRTZ, Va. (AP) — The herd of Black Angus cows that approached Alex Hunt on his Franklin County farm, hoping for a handout of grain, seemed benevolent enough.

But if left to freely roam 430 acres of fields and forest, the cattle would surely head for one of four creeks on the land. There, they would drink the water, eat the vegetation and wallow along the banks, carving out large mud pits from which sediment would be swept downstream.

“I can say without question that in livestock regions like Franklin County, Augusta County and Rockingham County, the number one water pollution issue is cattle in streams,” said Bobby Whitescarver, a retired government conservation official who now runs a consulting business that works to restore watersheds.

“You’re talking about 1,000-pound bovines gouging the stream bank with their hooves,” he said. “They absolutely destroy water quality.”

There is a solution, and Hunt is part of it.

With financial help from state and federal agencies, the third-generation farmer had nearly 10 miles of barbed-wire fences installed to keep the cows out of the creeks — and, as a result, sediment out of the water.

The project also entailed planting trees on 8 acres of stream-side land and building alternative watering spots for his cows, who now drink well water pumped to troughs.

“I think the payoff was well worth it,” Hunt said on a recent May afternoon, as he stood next to a head of about 85 cows that had congregated in the shade of trees a safe distance from an unnamed tributary of Maggodee Creek.

Hunt remembered having reservations when he started the work about eight years ago.

“I was younger when I did this,” the 40-year-old said. “I was borrowing a whole lot of money and I wasn’t 100% sure that I would get paid back. It was a gamble.”

“But I think in the long run, it’s money well spent.”

The improvements cost about $100,000, which has since been repaid in full by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and federal agencies such as the Farm Service Agency and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

Earlier this year, Hunt’s farm was one of nine statewide to receive a Clean Water Farm Award from the DCR and local soil and water conservation districts.

“These farms are shining examples of the commitment to improving water quality by the agricultural community,” Darryl Glover, a deputy director for the state conservation agency, said in an announcement of the awards.

With the advent of more severe storms that are being attributed to climate change, the risks posed by erosion and sedimentation in streams and rivers are getting more attention in Virginia and across the country.

When mud and silt — whether caused by cows, construction projects, or runoff from urban streets and parking lots — infiltrate water bodies, it can threaten fish, invertebrates and aquatic vegetation.

As it moves downstream, sediment can also affect drinking water supplies and coat the bottoms of rivers and lakes with a layer of silt that gradually grows thicker.

From Hunt’s farm, surface water flows into Maggodee Creek, which then joins with the Blackwater River on the way to Smith Mountain Lake and beyond.

Also known as nonpoint source pollution — meaning that it comes from multiple locations instead of a single industry or construction site — sedimentation has been identified as a major risk to water quality by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Manure from cows, who especially like to wallow in creek and river beds to get relief from the summer heat, is another problem.

Virginia is stepping up its efforts to encourage farmers to follow Hunt’s example, and is committing more funds to the conservation program, Glover said.

The General Assembly approved $74 million in the current fiscal year for efforts to reduce sedimentation from farms. The money was distributed to 47 local soil and water conservation districts, which are responsible for taking applications and awarding the grants.

The Blue Ridge Soil and Water Conservation District, which serves the counties of Franklin, Henry and Roanoke and the city of Roanoke, received about $642,000 this year.

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