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Fighting Pollution at Hays Creek

Rockbridge County’s Hays Creek is polluted with e-coli.

The creek flows from just north of Brownsburg into the Maury River, the James River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has listed the creek as impaired with bacteria and efforts are now underway to remedy the situation, with help from Washington and Lee University.

A modest grant from the DEQ to Robert Humston, assistant professor of biology at W&L, will enable him to buy test kits to monitor the water pollution. Humston’s goal is to enlist the help of landowners along the creek’s 50,000-acre watershed not only to reduce the pollution but also to use the test kits to monitor the results. “If people are more involved in the process, then they will become more invested in the results,” said Humston. “The DEQ does a fantastic job of monitoring our surface waters but they can’t be everywhere all the time.”

The main cause of the bacterial pollution in Hays Creek, according to the DEQ, is the large number of cattle that are allowed access to it. “During the hot months of the year, they like to cool off in the water,” said Humston, “and it provides a source of drinking water for them.” He also explained that when the cattle defecate in the water they release a large quantity of bacteria directly into the creek. Although the bacteria don’t have a long life it does mean that the water is unhealthy. “It is definitely unsafe for humans to be drinking the water or swimming in it during times of high bacteria loads,” he said.

Humston also pointed out that the bacteria are feeding into the Maury River, although it has not been listed as unsafe due to the larger volume of water compared to Hays Creek.

Another more regional issue is the question of unhealthy levels of nutrients. “If you see a problem with bacteria from cow feces then you can assume that there are also high inputs of nutrients since they also come from cow feces,” he said. “While the bacteria will eventually die, the nutrients are going downstream and will eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay. This includes nitrogen and phosphorous, which may be good for plants and growing crops, but once they get into the slow-moving water they stay in the system for a long time. By fixing the bacteria problem in one small creek we are also contributing to fixing the nutrient problem that is pervasive throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

Fixing Hays Creek will mean keeping cattle out of the water. As part of his efforts to reach out to the local community, Humston is joined by colleagues Laura Henry-Stone, a post-doctoral fellow in environmental studies, and Don Dailey, visiting associate professor with the Shepherd Poverty Program. Along with a group of representatives from several Virginia state and local conservation agencies they have held meetings with landowners to learn about the community’s concerns for water quality and land use.

They have explained why the bacteria problem exists and why fixing it would not only benefit the environment but also result in a higher growth rate and better health for the cattle. Since this is all private land, however, the state is not saying that landowners must take action, although some are already voluntarily putting fences up near the creek.

Humston explained that some people who bought the land for raising cattle, did so specifically because it had the creek running through it. “Telling them what they can and can’t do with their own property becomes a thorny issue,” he said.

“Another problem is that some people have the wherewithal to put up these fences, but for others this is a lot of money to pull together. Then the fences have to be maintained for years down the road, and that can take a lot of work. They may also have to put in wells to provide an alternative source of water.”

This is where W&L comes in. “Our role is to point people to the government and non-profit programs that can help defray the costs of putting in these fences and then to provide any necessary volunteer assistance in maintaining them,” he said.

Humston teaches a class at W&L on freshwater ecology in which he and his students have been measuring the pollution levels at Hays Creek. They have also been comparing their own more complex tests with the new test kits provided by the grant. “They compare very nicely and these test kits are easy to use,” he said.

Humston hopes to recruit 20 landowners to monitor the pollution levels at Hays Creek, giving each person 10 test kits to last 10 months of the year. The kits consist of a small bottle to collect the water and a compound to mix with it. This is then put on a plate and covered in tin foil and stored at room temperature for a couple of days. After that time, Humston said, the number of bacterial colonies is apparent and can be counted. This gives an idea of how many colony-forming bacteria are present in a certain volume of water, and what type of bacteria they are.

The participants would monitor the water once a month and Humston would coordinate their activities with those of his freshwater ecology class. “If people need help reading the plates, or they’re not sure if they are doing it correctly, or just want confirmation that they are doing it right, our students will help them. Having people collect reliable data is going to help tremendously,” he said, “and the efforts of W&L students will help make sure that the data we send to the DEQ is the highest quality possible.”

Although this initial water-monitoring project is only for one year, Humston hopes to apply for grants that will extend it for a full 10 years. “After that time we will start to see improvements in the water system and be able to identify what activities are having the most impact. Certainly fencing off cattle will have the greatest impact, but there are also stream restoration efforts to consider as well,” he said.

One person who has fully bought into stream restoration is W&L alum Russell Fletcher of Indian Bottom Farm. He has given Humston’s students complete access to monitor the water in the part of Hays Creek that runs through his property. Humston holds up this farm up as a great success story. “He’s not only put up fences to keep the cattle from the water, but he’s done a lot of work to stabilize the banks that the cattle destroyed when they walked in the creek. Now he has nice sloping banks with new grasses and sycamores growing where once there were steep cliffs of exposed dirt that were constantly washing soil downstream.” Restoring this streamside vegetation helps reduce inflow of e-coli from cattle manure on pastures during a rain, an additional source of bacterial inputs. Fletcher has also renovated the stream channel itself, establishing a more normal water flow pattern of riffles, pools and runs.” All of these fixes help with the bacteria problem,” Humston said.

Humston said that so far he has been pleasantly surprised at the encouraging responses to his project from local residents. “The idea behind W&L’s involvement is to provide volunteer effort and scientific support that sits at the interface between what the state agencies are attempting to do and what the landowners need to do to fix Hays Creek,” he said. “We want to facilitate the process of restoration, but the beneficiaries will be the landowners, their cattle and the environment.”