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Farm fencing to help the bay falling short, advocates say

When the Black Angus cows at Hunting Lotte farm want to cool off on hot summer days, they huddle in the shade of a big tree — not the refreshing waters of the stream that flows through the pasture.

That's because years ago, the farm's owner fenced it off to keep his animals from eroding its banks and relieving themselves in the water in the process.

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"We no longer have mud coming down the stream," said Carl Miller. He said he has also fenced off streams on two other farms he owns.

It's a growing conservation practice, and one officials say can contribute significantly to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. But it's far from universal; there are still plenty of farm animals muddying the water and polluting it.

Indeed, just over the hill, cows can be seen drinking from and wading in Linganore Creek. Farmer Samuel Tressler III said he's put up some fencing to limit erosion in "high-traffic areas." But he said he wouldn't be able to graze his dairy herd anymore if he had to fence off his entire main pasture from the creek.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission says Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia should be doing more to get farmers to keep their animals away from waterways that flow into the troubled estuary. The issue — and what to do about it — is expected to come up Thursday when state and federal officials meet in Washington for an annual update on how the long-running bay restoration effort is going.

"The opportunity to reduce significant amounts of pollution is in front of us, if we exclude livestock from streams," said Ann Swanson, the commission's executive director.

Putting up fencing and providing other places for animals to drink can reduce stream bank erosion and phosphorus pollution by roughly 80 percent, according to a study the commission cites in a recent report. Sediment and phosphorus are two of the pollutants blamed for causing algae blooms and a massive, fish-stressing "dead zone" in the bay every summer.

"It's actually elegantly simple," Swanson said. "What makes it very complex is the number of private owners involved and the commitment required to do it."

It's not a small problem. Farming is responsible for roughly half the nutrient and sediment pollution that fouls the bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While the poultry industry and overfertilization of croplands on Maryland's Eastern Shore are major factors, data show farm animals elsewhere in the vast bay watershed are significant contributors.

There are more than 3.5 million hoofed animals — dairy and beef cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats — in the three states that make up the majority of the bay watershed. While some are kept in confined feeding operations, most graze on more than 2.4 million acres of pasture, much of it bordering streams.

Fencing animals out of streams doesn't only clean up water pollution, the commission said; it also can improve herd health and reduce animal injuries. But some farmers resist fencing. Reasons include the cost and trouble of installing or maintaining it, complications of dealing with absentee landlords and loss of pastureland. Some are also reluctant to take government money, even though it could cover the lion's share of the conservation measure.

Maryland, with only about 300,000 cows, horses and other hoofed animals, has a smaller issue to deal with than neighboring states. Yet state officials have pledged to eliminate a fifth of the phosphorus pollution and nearly 10 percent of the sediment coming from farms in Maryland by keeping more livestock out of streams, the commission notes.

On paper, Maryland has taken the toughest stance toward getting farm animals out of streams. Pennsylvania and Virginia rely on farmers voluntarily erecting fences, and offers grants to cover the bulk of the expense. Maryland also offers financial assistance, but under a regulation that took effect last year, the state requires farmers to keep their animals at least 10 feet away from streams.

Enforcement is limited. State inspectors check for compliance on only 10 to 15 percent of farms per year, according to Louise Lawrence, chief of resource conservation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. She said the rate of inspections is controlled by the department's staffing level.

Moreover, Maryland doesn't specifically require fencing, though Swanson said its value has clearly been demonstrated.

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Under the state rule, farmers can try keeping their herds away by planting shrubs and trees along streams, and by offering them drinking facilities back from the water. The EPA credits those alternatives with only a fraction of the pollution reductions that fencing can achieve, but state officials are relying on fenceless methods to protect three times as much stream corridor as they foresee getting fenced.

In the right circumstances, Lawrence said, fenceless methods can be just as effective at keeping animals out of streams.

"But at the end of the day if MDA goes out and sees it's still not working, we can require you to put in fencing," Lawrence said.

Still, she said, "We're on an approach to work with farmers who aren't there yet — not in a mode to slap them with fines."

Since October 2012, the state has helped farmers install 46 miles of fencing, though some or most of that may be erected on both sides of a stream. The state picked up 87.5 percent of the costs, spending $1.8 million on fence and other costs, including pouring concrete "driveways" through streams to provide animals crossings that will stir up less mud.

"It's a pretty incredible amount of cows that have been fenced, but there's still quite a few streams that have yet to be fenced." said Elmer Weibley, manager of the Washington County soil conservation district.

Tressler said he has "mixed feelings" about fencing his 150-cow dairy herd off from Linganore Creek, which flows into a lake of the same name before draining into the Monocacy River.

He has only about 75 acres of pasture, he said, and it's split by the creek and a two-lane paved road. The creek flooded recently, washing away some of the fencing he had put up to keep his cows from straying when they crossed to the other pasture.

And if he has to provide a 30-foot "buffer" between his cows and the stream, as some cost-sharing programs require, he fears there wouldn't be enough land left to properly graze the animals.

"At the end of the day, if they come in here and say you've go to do this, I suppose we'd do it," he said. But he also noted that he's 62 years old, and thinking of downsizing his operation already. He said the costs of this and other environmental requirements could well push him to quit altogether.

Miller invested $100,000 — of which nearly 80 percent was paid for by the state — to put up 8,800 feet of fencing and provide other conservation measures on his main 450-acre Hunting Lotte farm, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Water-quality sampling of Ben's Branch, the stream that flows through Miller's farms, showed a drop in phosphorus pollution after the work was done in 2007, and vegetation quickly recovered in the once-eroded stream channel.

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Since then, pollution levels have varied, said the MDE's Kenneth Shanks. He suggested weather could be a factor, as could the fact that other farmland on the stream has not been fenced.

Jason Storm, who manages Miller's three farms, said it's a chore to keep the vegetation growth in check inside the fenced-off streams. But he added, "I like it for the most part. ... I don't have to worry about a cow dropping a calf in the creek and it drowning."

Miller, though, said he's a firm believer in the value of fencing.

"The sooner [other farmers] do it, the less loss [of soil] they will have," he said. "You have to start somewhere."

The bay commission said Virginia and Pennsylvania also are falling short. Lack of funding is Virginia's most immediate problem, the commission said, while Pennsylvania has a legal prohibition against mandating fencing.

Until this month, Virginia was offering to pay all the costs of installing fencing. The offer drew a flurry of applications, and the state shelled out $48 million before it ran out of money. It now has a backlog of $73 million worth of fencing projects to be done, according to Clyde Cristman, the state's director of conservation and recreation. Cristman said state officials hope to have enough funds in the coming year to take care of much of that backlog.

Even with such large outlay, Cristman "guesstimated" that no more than about 25 percent of Virginia streams exposed to grazing animals have been fenced. While acknowledging the state had a lot more to do, he said he didn't believe Maryland's regulatory approach would fly in Virginia. Taking a hard line could push farmers to quit and sell their land, he warned.

"I think I'd rather have to work with a farmer to try to keep his farm going than to see it become a subdivision," he said.

In Pennsylvania, a 1980 law forbids state or local government from requiring fencing to keep livestock out of streams. The state offers a variety of cost-sharing and tax incentives to get farmers' cooperation. But Pennsylvania has come under fire from environmentalists and the EPA for not doing enough to reduce its share of bay pollution, particularly from its farms, which harbor 2.1 million head of livestock.

A spokesman for John Quigley, Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection, said "past efforts have been insufficient." The spokesman said Gov. Tom Wolf is working toward "rebooting" the state's effort.

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