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About three-quarters of Virginia’s water monitoring stations in the Shenandoah Valley found levels of fecal bacteria so high in the first half of 2022 that they exceeded EPA recommendations to warn people of health risks from swimming or splashing in water.

Seventy-six percent of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality sampling sites (44 of 58) in the Shenandoah waterways from January 1 to July 12 of this year (the most recent data available) had levels of E.coli that weren’t safe for swimming or recreation, according to an analysis of state monitoring figures by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. In 2021, 60% (29 out of 48) of water monitoring stations in the valley did not meet the standard. But those numbers are a slight, if perhaps temporary, improvement, according to independent environmental monitoring group EIP.

The first half of 2022 and all of 2021 had lower bacteria counts than the 2015 to 2020 average, when nearly 80% of samples had unhealthy bacteria levels. Lower rainfall in 2021 may have temporarily reduced manure runoff and other pollutants that raise bacteria levels in rivers and streams.

To review an online map with details of Virginia bacteria monitoring results at locations in the Shenandoah Valley, and where it is safe to swim, Click here.

“Bacteria levels in the Shenandoah River are still too high, and Virginia needs to do more to encourage — or require — livestock fencing along the waterways and prevent chronic overapplication of manure to agricultural fields.” , said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of Environmental Integrity. Project. “The Shenandoah Valley is a treasure that deserves better protections. We recognize that Virginia is taking steps to increase funding for farm best management practices, including adding waterfront fencing, and that is to be commended.

Photo: environmentalintegrity.org

In March 2022, the Virginia General Assembly approved a record $265 million for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for agricultural pollution control “best management practices” — including shoreline livestock fencing. watercourses and other measures to reduce runoff into watercourses.

But, despite persistently high bacteria levels in the Shenandoah, Virginia has posted no signs warning rafters, kayakers or swimmers of bacteria levels — as it routinely does with swimming advisories at ocean beaches in high levels of bacteria. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends warning swimmers when concentrations of E.coli bacteria exceed 235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water.

Nearly 160 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and 528,000 cows are raised each year in Augusta, Page, Shenandoah and Rockingham counties in the Shenandoah Valley. Most of their manure is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but it contains far more phosphorus than the crops need for growth. Excess manure leaches pollutants into groundwater and is often washed away by rain into surrounding waterways.

Bacteria levels in waterways have been known to increase after periods of heavy rain, as the rain washes fertilizer and sediment into rivers and streams. Precipitation totals in Harrisonburg, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, were significantly lower in 2021 (about 37 inches) than the 2015-2020 annual average (46 inches). This drop in rainfall in 2021 could have temporarily reduced bacteria levels that year. Full figures are not yet available for 2022.

FECAL BACTERIA LEVELS IN SHENANDOAH WATERWAYS, 2015-2022

* Figures for 2022 are from January 1 to July 12. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality water sampling data. The threshold value used in this table is the EPA’s “beach action value” for swimming, which recommends states notify the public when bacteria levels exceed 235 E. coli bacteria counts/100ml of water. NOAA annual rainfall data for Harrisonburg, Virginia.

In April 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a “Livestock Fencing in the Shenandoah Valley” study that used aerial photography from the livestock industry to show that 81% of farms in the two largest counties State farms — Augusta and Rockingham — failed to fence their livestock off streams, which contributed to bacterial contamination.

This low fencing rate was despite the state of Virginia’s promise to the EPA that 95% of streams crossing pastures would be fenced off for livestock by 2025 to meet cleanup plan goals. the state for the Chesapeake Bay.

The release of this April 2019 report prompted the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to conduct its own aerial survey of livestock fencing. Virginia lawmakers later approved increased funding and reimbursement rates to encourage more farmers to install livestock fencing along waterways. Lawmakers also passed a law that allows state officials to impose livestock fencing along waterways if the agricultural sector fails to meet Bay Bay pollution reduction targets. 2025.

As a result of increased funding, more Virginia farmers began enrolling in a state program to install livestock fencing. In Augusta and Rockingham counties, the number of farmers enrolled in the streamside fencing program increased from 26 in fiscal year 2019 to 38 in fiscal year 2020, to 55 in fiscal year 2021 and 40 in fiscal year 2022, according to data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

For more details on bacteria monitoring in the Shenandoah Valley, click here.

In October 2019, Virginia revoked its “beach action value” for E. coli in freshwater areas, which is a trigger value for potential health risks to people swimming or recreating in waters containing more than 235 counts of E. coli/100ml of water. . The Commonwealth no longer has beach warning values ​​for freshwater areas like the Shenandoah River and does not issue warnings when fecal bacteria levels are high in these areas.

However, despite Virginia’s change, the EPA continues to recommend that states warn swimmers of potential health risks when E coli counts exceed 235 E. coli/100ml of water. Thus, the Environmental Integrity Project, in its annual report on the matter, uses this level of bacteria as a criterion of potential threat to recreational water contact.


(From a release by the Environmental Integrity Project. EIP is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington DC and Austin, Texas, dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening environmental protection policies. public health and the environment.)


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