Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cattleman on a kayak

[Video: How often to you get to interview a cattle rancher from a river kayak? Check out this clip with Robert Curd, a cattleman in Virginia who raises about 80 cattle on 300 acres. He's using state and county money to keep his cattle -- and their problem-causing poop -- out of the James River.]

By John Sutter

Standing on a bank of the James River with other members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, colorful leaves seemed to hang in the air before wandering into the water. David Sligh, the water keeper for this part of the river, told our group of canoeists and kayakers that the river we were about to journey onto represented far more than this picturesque scene. It's a machine, he said, and one made up of many parts. Small streams and creeks that cover a quarter of the land in Virginia feed these waters. In turn, the James dumps its contents off of the eastern shore of the United States, into the Chesapeake Bay. But this natural machine is about more than just water, Sligh urged. Trees that line its banks filter out pollution. Oysters, once prevalent on the riverbed and now conspicuously absent, act as filters, too. And the farmers and factories and coal trains and mines and cities and people that exist in the James' watershed are inextricable constituents of the quality of this water.

This full-circle view of nature seemed to me to be the main point of our group's four-hour trip down the river, from a drop-off point at a bridge in Buchanan, Va. (pronounced here: "Buck-An-An.") Along our way, we heard from several of the river's stakeholders. Each gave our group a window into the sources of water pollution that plague this river and so many others across the country.

After weaving through some small rapids with a canoe partner who had a much better sense of how not to crash than I, our boats pulled into a shady spot to hear from Amanda Gray, a water planning engineer with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Gray made many points, but perhaps the most useful was the fact that many of Virginia's waters (and many nationally, including most of those in Oklahoma) are not tested to see if they meet federal and state water quality standards. "The more we know, the worse it is," she said.

All states are required to submit reports on waters that are known to violate laws because their waters are impaired for some reason or another. Virginia, again, like many states, has a major backlog on those reports. Parts of the James River are listed as impaired, mostly because of E. coli and other bacteria, Gray said. The bacteria can make people who swim in the river sick. If a river meets water quality standards, the state government still expects about eight in 1,000 people who swim in it to become ill, she said, usually with a stomach ache or other digestion problems.

After some smooth paddling to a gravel bar, our next speaker, Anne Marie Clarke, of the Robert E. Lee Soil & Water Conservation District, told us about the sources of these and other pollutants on the James River. Leaky and outdated sewer systems and wild animals are much of the problem, she said, but cattle that graze on land in the watershed contribute as well. She pointed to county- and state-level programs that will pay cattle ranchers to essentially keep their animals from pooping in the river, or in places where it will get into the river. They're also paid to plant new trees along the banks of the water to stop erosion and so that fecal matter is filtered out before it hits the James. Nitrogen and phosphorus from the feces promote unhealthy levels of algae growth in the river, and that leads to ecosystem and water quality problems that can be felt all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Robert Curd, a cattleman, was up next. He has built fences along streams on his property and is trying to bring back forest. These measures improve his bottom line, he said, and make the soil, water and cattle healthier.

He urged government support for such measures, which, in his case, are fully subsidized. Without protection, farm land could go to development, which may pose greater threats to the environment, he said.

"We need to protect agriculture," he said. "You can do your best bang for your buck with agriculture, and get the best benefit in the water quality in the bay."

As we continued our paddle, I noticed how quiet and still -- seemingly natural -- parts of the river were, and how loud and industrial the atmosphere felt in other places. At one point, train tracks ran along both banks, and large engines carrying coal from the Appalachian Mountains clanged by, completely drowning out the lull of the rapids and the falling leaves. We stopped a few times, for lunch and a talk on sewer systems before coming to a final bank where we heard from Arthur Butt, a kayaker with a beard, a surfing history and a job at the Virginia DEQ.

Butt connected all of the dots for our group. He told us wow-factor stories about a time when these waters were full of oysters as big as his sandals, when the trees were much taller and older and when there were fish as big as our canoes. He again hit the point that everything here is connected -- so a farmer's methods in the mountains can have dire impacts on a fisher or crab trapper in the bay. The world's fisheries are under siege, he said, and it's "because we're putting so much pressure on them." The sea grasses that used to provide homes for crabs are gone from the river bottom, and oyster populations are 1 percent of what they would be if the river were healthy, he said.

For more on the James River, check out this video, where Butt explains where the water pollution comes from:


JenX67 said...

great blog. have you submitted to search engines, technorati, blog catalog, etc.?

jdsutter said...

thanks jen! i need to do some more blog-pimping, i suppose. thinking about moving to wordpress, so might hold off til that happens. thanks for the tips, though. hope all is well with you ...