Counting Sheep: Livestock Stream Fencing Accounting as Easy as Herding Cats

Evan Isaacson

May 18, 2015

Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Commission released a report Healthy Livestock, Healthy Streams to advocate for stream fencing, one of several dozen longstanding agricultural best management practices (BMPs) recognized by the Chesapeake Bay Program.  Promoting stream fencing is common sense: when livestock loiter near streams, they compact soil, clearing a path for runoff; when they enter the stream, they erode its bank and send sediment into the channel; and when nature calls, they deposit “nutrients” directly into the stream.  It is not just bad for aquatic habitats, it is bad for farmers and their vet bills. 

Despite significant reductions over the past 30 years in nutrient and sediment loading from agricultural sources, the share of these pollutants from the agriculture sector has remained remarkably consistent, contributing, for example, 45% of the nitrogen to the watershed in both 1985 and 2014.  However, the Bay TMDL calls for the agriculture sector to bring this down to about 40% of the total load, requiring the sector to shoulder over 60% of the reduction burden (figures are even higher for phosphorus).  The good news is that reductions from the agriculture sector are widely recognized to be the most cost effective, although, as noted below, there is much uncertainty for stream exclusion BMPs.  In any event, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia count on stream exclusion for 9%, 20%, and 24% of sediment reductions from the agriculture sector, respectively – a significant reliance on one single practice.

While Maryland was the first State to participate in the federal Conservation Resources Enhancement Program (“CREP” – which incorporates stream fencing) and has made strides in utilizing funds for stream exclusion, the report notes that fencing is particularly underutilized in the State’s Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP); the report also notes that new State exclusion regulations do not require the use of fencing, and that additional compliance monitoring may substantiate the need for fencing in the future.  Pennsylvania, with roughly seven times more livestock than Maryland, has some of the same reported issues.  Despite having enrolled a significant number of acres in CREP and extending many subsidies for stream exclusion practices – including refundable tax credits – the report notes that Pennsylvania relies too heavily on exclusion practices other than fencing, even though fencing is estimated to reduce pollution by four to five times more than alternative exclusion practices.  One significant barrier to increasing the use of fencing in Pennsylvania is a very old law that prohibits the Commonwealth from requiring the fencing of pastures – repealing this outdated law would be an obvious fix for enhancing participation in stream fencing programs.

Of the three states studied, Virginia has experienced the most success in increasing the installation of stream fencing, particularly in recent years due to a new “cost-share” program offering 100% of the cost of fencing installed under specified standards.  After other incentives, a participant can receive more than 100% of costs, not including additional – and refundable – tax credits.  Eligibility for the 100% cost-share is available only through July 1, 2015 and was quickly oversubscribed.  According to Bay Program data, Virginia has many times more acres controlled by stream fencing than the other two states combined, and has only widened this lead over the last few years. 

Virginia’s generous subsidies have resulted in significant increases in stream fencing practices in the Commonwealth, but it is not exactly clear by how much.  The report makes clear that any estimate of the number or percentage of livestock restricted from streams can only be supported by anecdotal evidence.  Other close observers of the Bay TMDL implementation confirm that estimates can vary by orders of magnitude.  Virginia has the laudable ambition of excluding 95% of livestock from streams, but without a reliable method of measuring progress, it is unclear how much credit toward it should receive (the same goes for the other two states).  This uncertainty stems from many factors: too many programs in the region with differing standards and specifications (which the report also notes is seen as a bureaucratic disincentive for participation); the use (and overreliance) on voluntary approaches; lack of monitoring resources; and difficulties with the Bay Model itself.

If stream fencing is one of the most important BMPs in the most important sector for Bay restoration, then it is critically important to ensure that (a) there are sufficient programs in place to require and/or incent this practice; and (b) there is sufficient oversight to ensure actual fences are in place to result in the actual pollutant reductions that the Bay Program is counting on from this BMP.  These are not issues unique to stream exclusion programs – Bay TMDL implementation, particularly in the agricultural sector, is fraught with issues that can only be fixed by designing programs with greater transparency and by funding such programs with sufficient monitoring resources.

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