Northam Waters Down Virginia’s Livestock Fencing Plan

Northam Administration vs The Chesapeake Bay. Two disturbing facts were brought to light last week. First, a survey of two agriculture-intense Virginia counties found that the effort to reduce agricultural pollution by fencing off farm streams from cattle is far behind schedule. Second, our supposedly progressive governor put forth a very watered down Watershed Improvement Plan that effectively eliminates the livestock fencing goals in the Commonwealth.

Cows do more than fart and burp. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, raised more than a few eyebrows when her New Green Deal included measures to curb the greenhouse gas effects of farting and burping cows. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez whimsically referenced the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide as digestive byproducts from many farm animals, especially cattle. While these emissions are a legitimate issue, a bovine prescription for Gas-X and Rolaids would not solve the problem. The production of meat in general, and beef in particular, has a sizable negative impact on the environment. Every step in raising, slaughtering, packaging and shipping meat adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Across the globe animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (14-18%) than transportation (13.5%). However, the environmental impact of animal agriculture doesn’t end with greenhouse gas emissions. A 1400-pound Holstein steer produces 115 pounds of manure per day or about 21 tons per year. Some of this prodigious amount of manure finds its way from cows and steers to farm creeks and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. The manure contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which cause excess algae growth de-oxygenating the bay’s water. Many consider animal waste the biggest problem confronting the Chesapeake Bay.

The good news. Significantly reducing the impact of beef farming on the Chesapeake Bay is rather straight forward — build fences. Farmers who build fences to keep cattle away from the streams on their property substantially reduce the amount of manure getting into the watershed. Building these fences has been one of the key activities of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program. Unfortunately, the Daily Press is reporting that Virginia farmers have fallen far short in livestock fencing. Worse yet, the latest Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) put forth by Governor Ralph Northam “waters down” Virginia’s commitment to livestock fencing. Apparently, the governor’s expertise with spreading manure began and ended with his claim that he didn’t know how that racist photograph ended up on his yearbook page.

95 by 2025. The last time Virginia’s WIP was revised was 2012. That plan called for 95% of streams running through farm fields to be fenced by 2025. Recent surveys of farms in Augusta and Rockingham counties show that only 19% of streams in farm fields are fenced today. While two counties don’t tell the story of an entire state, over 200,000 heads of cattle call those counties home. A loose extrapolation of this data would lead one to believe that Virginia is far from achieving its goal of 95% fencing six years from now.

Northam moves tears down the goalposts. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. It was the EIP that measured the fencing in Augusta and Rockingham counties. The EIP has also been closely monitoring the Northam Administration’s proposed changes to the WIP. EIP spokesman Tom Pelton said that if Northam’s watershed plan stands as is, things will go from sobering to worse. A careful reading of the WIP, said Pelton, “eliminates the 95 percent goal of protecting linear feet of streams on farms by 2025 — and replaces it with a newly defined goal that has no deadline, a more limited scope of streams protected and suggests that farmers can do alternative things to ‘exclude’ cattle instead of installing fences.”

Where is the outrage from the left? Virginia’s Democrats are well and widely known for their loud support of liberal causes, especially environmental problems like climate change. Yet here is one of their own — Ralph Northam — tearing up a big piece of Virginia’s commitment to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Where is the indignation? Where is the righteous outrage? Where are the demands to reinstate the fencing goals in the Virginia Watershed Improvement Plan? The silence from Virginia’s limousine liberals is deafening.

Corrections: The original article claimed that cow flatulence contains methane. An elected official wrote me to say that cows actually burp methane. Since I would never argue with an elected official about hot air emissions, I have corrected the post. Read more here.

— Don Rippert