Trees Remove E. Coli Pollution From Streams

This blog post was modified to become an oped piece for the Bay Journal News Service.  They distributed it on March 7, 2017.  USA Today published it on March 17th as “Want a cleaner river? Keep cow pies out, plant trees”.

Native leaves from trees like this Swamp White Oak will help bring back Brook Trout.

The leaves from this native Swamp White Oak on our farm will fall in the river and provide the energy for a thriving aquatic ecosystem.

E. Coli Cut By One Third

One of the most polluted rivers in Virginia flows through our farm in the Shenandoah Valley. However, we are witnessing the river’s amazing potential to heal. By taking steps like fencing cattle out of streams and planting trees along the banks, E. coli bacteria levels in the Middle River are cut by one-third after the river passes our farm.

For over 20 years, the Middle River has been on Virginia’s “dirty-waters list” because it exceeds the state standard for E. coli. It also violates the state’s General Standard, meaning there is so much sediment in the water the river cannot support a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

E. coli report for Middle River

Cover of the TMDL report for Middle River. Click on this image to see the whole report.

There is hope for turning that around.

When the river enters our farm, the average E. coli level is 2,471 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water (CFU/100mL). That is more than 10 times Virginia’s standard for E. coli, which is 235 CFU/100mL.

E. coli is reduced in half by the trees on this farm.

Middle River at six miles from its source. This is our part of the river which we fenced off from cattle in 2004.

But a remarkable thing happens over the course of the farm’s half mile stretch of river. By the time the river leaves our property, the average E. coli level has been reduced 30.6 percent to 1,715 CFU/100mL.

While that’s still pretty polluted, it is a huge improvement. What’s happening?

Here’s the story.

The river begins just six miles upstream, by the time it enters our farm it’s nineteen feet across, far too wide to jump across. When the weather is cold, the water is crystal clear. But when it’s warm out it looks like chocolate milk.

The cause of the pollution is obvious. Cattle cool off in waterways upstream, where they wallow, defecate, urinate, and trample up and down streambanks.

This dislodges soil from the riverbanks, making the water look like chocolate milk. The suspended soil suffocates aquatic life as sediment clogs the gills of fish and other critters.

Cattle pollute streams with nutrients and E. coli

Cattle trample the stream banks, dislodge soil, defecate and destroy aquatic life.

All the manure livestock deposit in the river is basically fecal coliform bacteria and nutrients. This devastating contamination can cause livestock and human illnesses and fuels harmful algae blooms.

Years ago the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) held a meeting with the landowners in our community to inform us that the river was polluted. They told us that most of the pollution was caused by livestock having access to the river and its tributaries.

“It’s not us,” many said. “You will have to prove it.”

DCR Proved It.

So the DCR set out to prove it. They worked with a private company and James Madison University to track down the sources of the bacteria. They collected water samples from the river and feces from the land, grew cultures from each to see whose bacteria from the land matched up to the bacteria in the water.

Research conducted by JMU concluded that 94 percent of the fecal matter in our river came from livestock. It was proven with empirical data – not a model (Appendix C, page C-9).

On our farm, we fenced cattle out of the river in 2004 and planted native trees and shrubs along the banks. Many of those trees are now over 15 feet tall. It’s a joy to walk in the shade along the river and see beautiful native flowers such as jewelweed, goldenrod, bur marigold and grand lobelia.

Bur Marigolds offer food for these Monarch Butterflies.

Forest Buffers Offer Eight Times the Cleansing Power

These trees and shrubs do so much for the river. They shade the water, stabilize the stream banks, and provide food and habitat for wildlife.

The pollution reduction in our meager half-mile of the river boils down to two simple points. First, we don’t have any cows in the river. Second, the trees and shrubs help the aquatic ecosystem function.

For example, scientists from the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania determined that a stream flowing through forested buffers is two to eight times more capable of processing in-stream nitrogen pollution than a stream without trees and shrubs along its banks.

Leaves From Trees are the Corn Silage of the Aquatic Ecosystem

That’s because leaves from native trees fall into the water and provide food for multitudes of critters that thrive in the water. These leaves are the corn silage of the aquatic ecosystem.

This Mayfly nymph lives in clean streams and eats leaves.  It has external gills. Sediment in Middle River clogs their gills and kills them.

Fencing livestock out of streams is beneficial for farmers and for everyone downstream.  It can be eight times more beneficial if trees are planted along the streams as well.

If we can get a 30.6 percent reduction in E. coli in half a mile, think what a mile, five miles, a hundred miles could do. We have not yet recognized the great power of a healthy aquatic ecosystem to process in-stream pollution. It doesn’t matter if that pollution comes from a wastewater treatment plant, a malfunctioning septic field, or the back end of a cow.

The bottom line is we can cut a lot of pollution if we just plant more trees along streams.

Learn more at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Friends of Middle River, Stroud Water Research Center, Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.


  1. Bravo Bobby! An inspiring vision.

    ps our phoebes are back and we heard the first wood frogs and spring peepers last night

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks for stopping in Kate and for your kind words. Tree Swallows arrived today. They usually get here the second week in March.

  2. Alan Lehman says:

    Awesome article Bobby!

  3. Blaine Delaney says:

    Incredible article, well written!!!

  4. Bobby: Great story! one of the most satisfying things in this field of work is to watch these ecosystems recover – and to watch it on you own farm must just sweeten the deal.

    for all of us at Stroud, it’s at the core of our mission to see the insights and science from our efforts help real people understand and implement projects that make a difference.

    Thanks for all your work, both on the ground, and through communication and outreach efforts!


    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks for your kind words Matt, and for all you do for our streams! It is really satisfying to see the stream banks heal and to see critters come back.

  5. Beautiful photographs and a powerful message. CREP areas are productive from many standpoints, although they take a lot of continuous work to be a lovely part of the landscape.

  6. It’s so important to demonstrate proof that the scientific theory and modeling is correct. Your article contains some great data and is inspiring. I will be sharing it with others here in Loudoun. Thank you!!

  7. George Ohrstrom says:

    Hey there Bobby
    Great post! I can only hope that it will influence the
    Few cattle farmers that don’t take advantage of cost share BMP’s
    To do so…
    I’m priveledged to be part of ” the movement.”
    Thanks for all you do!

  8. Bobby: Great piece that makes the case for all that we do together. The good weather must have made you feel optimistic!

    I am sending it around to the PEC Board and staff and a few others because what you have written is so encouraging and persuasive. I would love to work with you on a piece that looks at how this works at different scales—from the initial headwater segments down to the main stems of the Rappahannock, the Shenandoah, the Potomac, and the James. If we can get 95% of the landowners to do the first steps of livestock exclusion, vegetated buffers, hardened crossings, improved pasture management, what does that look like?

    Yours in conservation


    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Chris, thanks so much for sharing the post with the PEC folks. There are many farmers in the Piedmont that have stepped up to clean up the streams and PEC has been a long time leader in the movement. I’m glad to help you any way I can, my friend.

  9. Roger Montague says:

    Great article. Nature has a great capacity to heal itself. Wonder who might offer “alternative facts” to try to refute the data you collected!?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Ha, thanks Roger. I can think of a few organizations that would refute the science. There are quite a few people that don’t understand empiracal data.

  10. Thanks Bobby.

    It’s tree planting time right now!

  11. Anne Nielsen says:

    This is a great story, Bobby, and the data provided much appreciated. I hope many of those with both streams and cattle will be convinced by your easily replicated success. Nature will clean up after human abuse if we just stop doing it! I have daffodils blooming a month ahead of time here in H’burg. The year without a winter? Cheers, Anne

  12. Add my accolades. Love this – and am so appreciative of the story you are able to tell from multiple discovery points – observational, anecdotal, and 100% science. Thank you! Am tweeting it via @waternotes

  13. Shane Thomas says:

    Excellent! Keep up the good work – – others will follow.

  14. Mary Fannn says:

    Hi Bobby-
    Thanks for this good news! As conservation chair of my garden club, I will share with them, as well as with conservation chairs of my DAR and Woman’s Clubs.
    With warmest regards,

  15. Hey Bobby-yes great article and even better are the results. I will be forwarding this to my daughter Jackie to show her how her efforts on the farm, and that of her school friends will make for cleaner water and a healthier ecosystem in Page County. I agree with George on getting more farmers on board, but it has been a tough sell in Page and other counties due to the process. Would love to see a brainstorming initiative put forth on how we could make things easier and do a better job on selling the programs available. thanks for all you do!

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Scott, thanks for stopping in and for your comment. Totally agree. The PROCESSES do get in the way. As a matter of fact the processes have taken the products hostage. I can think of several bureaucratic processes that could be eliminated.

  16. Great article, Bobby! It is good to see the scientific data as well as the passion!

  17. I was fortunate to get to see Bobby & Jeanne’s “half mile” crown jewel of success last weekend. The beauty of the trees, water and birdlife told the story. If only more farmers would join in on the effort, what a difference that would make. Bobby, you are an inspiration to the community, for the Chesapeake Bay efforts, and beyond. Thanks so much for your dedication to clean water for all.

    New Friend,

    Sarah Tuck

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Sarah, thank you so much for your kind words and for your visit. It was indeed a pleasure meeting you and having so much fun!

Speak Your Mind