WASHINGTON – Maryland earlier this month became the 10th state to create a paid family and medical leave program for workers, but Congress appears no nearer to enacting similar legislation.
The closest federal lawmakers came to overhauling family and medical leave policy came last fall when Democrats sought improvements as part of the Biden administration’s $1.75 trillion social safety net package, also known as the Build Back Better Act. But that legislation stalled, in part because of the inclusion of proposed family and medical leave changes.
Proponents of family and medical leave reforms, including Maryland’s two Democratic senators, are frustrated with the stalemate.
“For far too long, our nation’s lack of reliable family and medical leave has held our economy back and limited our workforce’s potential,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen told Capital News Service. “Hard-working Americans deserve to take leave when they are sick or caring for a loved one without worrying about losing their job or making ends meet.”
Van Hollen added that he was glad to see that the Maryland General Assembly had passed its own Family and Medical Leave Act and that assorted COVID-19 relief packages had been passed by Congress during the pandemic to temporarily extend family and sick leave, but American families needed a more permanent solution.
His colleague, Sen. Ben Cardin, agreed.
“The U.S. is the only OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country without a paid leave program,” Cardin said. “Clearly, this is not the leadership example we should be setting as a nation.”
Maryland’s family and medical leave legislation called the Time to Care Act of 2022, passed April 9 by a supermajority vote in the General Assembly following Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto the previous day.
Maryland now joins a patchwork of states where leave benefits vary, depending on an employee’s location, choice of profession, and the size of the company an employee works for.
The limited leave policies in the United States stand in contrast to other nations that have become renowned for their more generous benefits, including paid extended leave and maternity leaves.
Bulgaria leads the world by offering 58.6 weeks of minimum paid maternity leave with a guarantee of job security, according to the World Population Review.
By contrast, the United States – under the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 – currently offers 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period to care for a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from a serious illness.
Under the act, “employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles,” according to the Department of Labor.
That law has shortcomings, leave advocates say.
“The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, remains the only federal law that offers protection for private-sector employees who need time away from work to manage their own health or care for a loved one,” said Gayle Goldin, senior advisor to the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.
“While monumental, the FMLA only guarantees some workers unpaid time away from work,” she said. “Even when eligible for FMLA, many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.”
But expanding family and medical leave appears to be a reach with Democrats holding a bare majority in the Senate and at least one of their own party opposed to making those benefits part of a broader social safety net bill.
“I don’t think it belongs in the bill,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said on CNN in November, referring to the leave provisions in last fall’s Build Back Better Act. “That’s a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint of if we do it and do it right.”
Manchin said he believed the policy could garner bipartisan support if it was done as a stand-alone bill.
“Let’s get it done in regular order through the process. It’ll last. It’ll be forever,” Manchin said.
In the meantime, the absence of more comprehensive and uniform family and medical leave policies poses a challenge for many families.
Vicky Prosser, 33, of Triangle, Virginia, was a high school Spanish teacher with the Prince William County Public Schools at the time of her second pregnancy. Her husband is in the military and he is changing assignments, requiring them to move.
Once the couple moves, Prosser said, “the likelihood of me being at a job for at least 12 months before I have a baby is just not high,” following the birth of her second child.
“And so it’s just really frustrating that because I moved with my husband for his military service, I don’t get the same benefits for my medical leave after delivering a baby as someone else would,” she said. “So I would love to see that updated to have allowances for military spouses who are having babies.”
Prosser noted that when she became a Spanish teacher with the Prince William County School system and was pregnant with her second child, she had not yet been an employee for 12-months, and did not qualify for family and medical leave act benefits.
“So, I had to take unpaid leave, and was not guaranteed a job at the end of my maternity leave…the whole thing was just incredibly frustrating,” she said.
Rachel Williams, 35, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, and an employee of the Millipor Sigma pharmaceutical company, said she had a much easier experience with family and medical leave than Prosser, although it was still not without its issues.
“My company really streamlined the process,” she said, regarding the time off for her pregnancy. “The initial paperwork, basically, my provider filled it out, and submitted it several months in advance. The fact that I got 100% paid for 14 weeks was pretty incredible.”
Williams also noted that she previously had worked for a much smaller company, which was following federal guidelines from 2010 and only provided eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave.
For Katie Garber, a mother of two from Takoma Park, Maryland, who is a social worker in private practice specializing in care for older adults, her experience was more mixed.
Garber, who was working for a very small non-profit that didn’t have the required number of employees for federal family and medical leave benefits, said she wound up essentially bargaining for her time off to have her first daughter.
“They didn’t really have to give it to me,” she said. “But I was a valued employee, it was a small office, and my executive director at the time really wanted to set the precedent that they wanted to be family-friendly. So I took the 16 weeks.”
Garber added that she felt lucky that her job had been held for her while she was on leave. Under a different director managing her, it might have been a different story, she said.
“At the time, there was no compensation at all,” Garber said. “So, my husband and I went from a two-earner household, you know, basically two adults with two incomes, to three people – two adults and one child income – for several months, which was definitely challenging.”
“I was so lucky to get the leave the way I did,” she said. “And I don’t feel that that’s how, especially a federal regulation, should be.”
In the case of LGBTQ+ individuals, requests to employers for family and medical leave in states that lack explicit protections can lead to employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Some fear the stigma they could face if they reveal the need to take time off for HIV-related care or transgender-specific treatment,” according to the Human Rights Campaign website. “Too many others, especially transgender people of color and those who are low-income, may face other forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, housing instability, and violence.”
There are often additional obstacles with employers to overcome in the case of LGBTQ+ workers.
“The challenges faced by workers who request time off from work for medically necessary transition-related health care are significant and painful, ranging from health insurance plans that don’t cover comprehensive trans health care and worries about being outed in the workplace, to flat out harassment,” said Liam Miranda, senior research manager for the Human Rights Campaign.
The Biden administration still is advocating for more comprehensive leave coverage.
“This administration understands the importance of paid family and medical leave to protect workers, especially those from historically marginalized communities,” Women’s Bureau director Wendy Chun-Hoon said. “Studies show that access to paid leave improves child health and well-being, maternal health, families’ economic security, worker retention, labor force participation, and worker productivity and morale.”
The House last fall approved expanding leave benefits in the doomed Build Back Better Act. But Manchin’s objections and GOP opposition in the Senate remain.
Separate from the Build Back Better Act, legislation to expand leave benefits has been introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York. But neither bill has seen any movement.
“In Washington, there is never a shortage of competing priorities, so the more visible and vocal in their support that members of the public can be, the better,” Cardin said. “We need everyone to amplify their calls for reform and to communicate this as a priority.”
By CHRIS BARYLICK
Capital News Service
Most approve of legalized sports wagering, but concerns over college games remain
When Tom McMillen discusses college sports and legalized gambling, he’s straightforward about his concern. He fears a game-fixing scandal that would shake the confidence of fans across the country.
“I would say 99 percent of the sports-betting scandals that have occurred had been in the college market,” said McMillen, a former U.S. Congressman and basketball All American at the University of Maryland.
Two of the most high-profile betting scandals in sports history have occurred at the college level. Boston College’s basketball program was ensnared in point-shaving controversy in the 1978-1979 season. In the 1950-51 season, City College of New York (CCNY) and at least six other schools were involved in a notorious incident involving players being paid to throw games.
With legal betting now an option for most fans, “I think there’s just that general fear that college kids could be exploited in this environment,” said McMillen, now CEO of LEAD1, an organization that represents athletic directors and programs of the Football Bowl Subdivision,
Sports fans generally welcome sports betting, according to a recent poll conducted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, in collaboration with the university’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and The Washington Post.
However, a survey of 1,503 people found less support for betting on college sports compared to betting on professional sports. In the Povich Center-CDCE-Post survey, 66% of respondents approved of legalized betting on professional sports. Just 55% supported legal betting on college sports.
Ryan Ridgeway, a 30-year-old warehouse worker from Laurel, Maryland, supports betting on professional sports but is wary about college sports because of the varying player finances.
“At the professional level, they’re already getting paid millions of dollars, I feel like they’d be less likely to throw a game,” he said. “Since [college athletes aren’t] getting paid millions of dollars, they have more of an incentive to throw a game.”
Richael Faithful, a consultant who lives in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC., also expressed reservations.
“My concerns there are that betting will continue to influence how college officials and the college regulatory bodies treat student-athletes,” they said.
Of the 30 states and D.C. that have passed legalized sports betting laws, 18 have some level of restriction on gambling on college sports. Virginia does not permit in-state betting on college sports. To place a bet on the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech requires crossing a state line into Maryland or West Virginia, for instance. In Maryland, wagering on both college and pro sports is permitted is only permitted at retail locations.
The ubiquity of mobile betting is a concern of gambling-addiction experts. Dr. Deborah Haskins, the President of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, said that being able to place bets on a cell phone lowers the barriers for gamblers, particularly those prone to compulsive behavior.
“If they’re betting electronically, they can stay in the game longer,” she said. “You’re seeing more people who are experiencing negative harms from gambling because now they can literally stay in the game 24/7.
“Gambling beyond your means economically … you’re spending more and more beyond what your budget is,” she said, adding that compulsive gamblers sometimes resort to drastic measures like using mortgage and rent money for gambling,” Haskins added.
In the Povich Center-CDCE-Post poll, concerns about sports gambling among younger fans was evident. Sixty-eight percent of respondents supported a minimum betting age of 21, compared to just 32% that supported a minimum age of 18.
Twenty-four states set their minimum gambling age to 21, with six states and Washington D.C. dropping it to 18. In Virginia and Maryland, the minimum age to gamble is 21.
In the poll, 20% of sports fans said they had bet on pro sports in the past five years compared to 17% of all respondents, Regarding college sports, only eleven percent of sports fans said they had bet in the last five years compared to nine percent of all respondents.
By Varun Shankar
The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism
Extraordinary Registered Nurse, Kari Schwind, recognized at Fauquier Health as DAISY Award Winner
Nurses at Fauquier Health continue to be honored with The DAISY Team Award For Extraordinary Nurses. The DAISY award is part of the DAISY Foundation’s program to recognize the super-human efforts nurses perform every day.
We are proud to announce that the second quarter DAISY Team award recipient for 2022 is Registered Nurse (RN), Kari Schwind. Kari works in Outpatient Special Procedures department as an Interventional Radiology RN. She received several strong nominations from her patients. Her nominations showcased the level of dedication and compassion she provides to her patients.
One nomination from a patient commented, “Kari embraced me with her warming smile. She was so caring and compassionate and made me feel comfortable and relaxed. She touched my heart by sharing her very own private story that day when I was so scared and nervous of what was to come next.” The patient went on to comment that Kari was the best registered nurse they ever had.
Another nomination that Kari received was a true testament to her ability to care for our patients. The patient commented on how Kari exceeded expectations, “[Kari] transmits confidence and professionalism in all she does, but it was her kind heart and dedication to her patients on that day that she was able to transform a potentially negative situation (my nervousness and anxiety) into the possible best outcome.”
During the surprise presentation ceremony, the hallway in the Outpatient Special Procedures department was lined with fellow team members and leadership who came to applaud Kari and congratulate her.
The not-for-profit DAISY Foundation is based in Glen Ellen, CA, and was established by family members in memory of J. Patrick Barnes. Patrick died at the age of 33 in late 1999 from complications of Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), a little known but not uncommon auto-immune disease. The care Patrick and his family received from nurses while he was ill inspired this unique means of thanking nurses for making a profound difference in the lives of their patients and patient families.
The DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses has been adopted by healthcare facilities around the world to celebrate nurses for their extraordinary care and compassion. The DAISY Team Award is for nurse-led teams of two or more who come together to solve a specific situation by going above and beyond. Nursing teams may be nominated by patients, families, and colleagues, and they are chosen by a committee of nurses at Fauquier Health to receive The DAISY Team Award. The DAISY Team Award is presented by Nursing Leadership at a surprise presentation. The DAISY Award winner receives a certificate commending them for being an “Extraordinary Nurse.” The certificate reads: “In deep appreciation of all you do, who you are and the incredibly meaningful difference your teamwork makes in the lives of so many people.” The DAISY Award winner also receives a specially engraved plaque engraved with the name of the Team.
To honor these special nurses at Fauquier Health, a banner has been hung in the hallway for all to see. Each DAISY Nurse will have the opportunity to sign the banner recognizing them for their commitment and dedication. For a complete listing of healthcare organizations currently running the program, please go to DAISYfoundation.org.
The DAISY Award and DAISY Team Award are initiatives of The DAISY Foundation in service to the nursing profession. Additionally, DAISY offers J. Patrick Barnes Grants for Nursing Research and Evidence-Based Practice Projects, The DAISY Faculty Award to honor inspiring faculty members in schools and colleges of nursing, and The DAISY in Training Award for nursing students. More information is available at DAISYfoundation.org.
About Fauquier Health
Fauquier Health is a community health system dedicated to high-quality, patient-centered care in a unique environment that considers the multiple facets of healing and respects the individuality of each and every patient. Located at 500 Hospital Drive in Warrenton, Virginia, Fauquier Health serves the residents of Fauquier and several surrounding counties. It comprises: Fauquier Hospital, a fully-accredited, 97-bed hospital; Fauquier Health Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a 113-bed long-term care and rehabilitation facility; the Villa at Suffield Meadows, an assisted living facility; the Wound Health Center and a medically supervised Wellness Center offering health and wellness programs. Fauquier Health also operates nine physician’s offices, including primary care and specialties. More information on Fauquier Health is available online at FauquierHealth.org or by calling 540-316-5000.
Public Advised to Avoid Contact with Algal Mats in sections of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near Town of Strasburg, VA
An Algal Mat Alert has been issued for the North Fork Shenandoah River for the Town of Strasburg. The alert area begins above the town at approximately Route 644 (Deep Hollow Lane), to include the Deer Rapids Road Bridge, to below the town at approximately Route 611 (Long Meadow Road), for a total of approximately 11.5 miles. Potentially toxic algae mats could be widespread or patchy in areas within this vicinity. Recreational use may continue providing those using the waterway take caution to avoid contact with the algae mats. If mats appear unavoidable in an area, the public should discontinue recreational activities there.
Algal Mat Alert signs have been posted near the boat ramp at Deer Rapids and at public access points along the North Fork Shenandoah River in Strasburg. The area of the river where algal mats have been investigated can be seen on the interactive Harmful Algal Bloom Map.
While this alert applies to this particular area, everyone is reminded to avoid areas in any natural waterway that have algal mats or discolored, scummy water. People should also avoid allowing their pets to swim in areas where mat material is observed. Contact with these mats may cause skin rash and gastrointestinal illnesses, such as upset stomach, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If mats are producing toxins, consumption of mats could be fatal to dogs and other animals when ingested. Sadly, animal deaths may occur suddenly following exposure. Humans should never consume water or material from a natural waterbody because this water is not treated water and is not suitable for consumption.
Although cyanotoxins were either below or just above detection in water samples tested from these locations, it is important to remember that toxin concentrations within the mats may be much more highly concentrated than those that may be in the water column. Avoiding contact with mats should avoid the release of toxins to the water, if mats are producing them.
VDH has observed no evidence of impacts to drinking water at this time. The Office of Drinking Water is working with drinking water utilities to protect drinking water sources.
The North Fork of the Shenandoah River is a popular local recreation area for boating, swimming and fishing. Please look for Algal Mat Alert signs posted along the river shoreline at public access points and observe the advisory precautions. Recreational uses may continue provided proper caution to avoid mats is observed. It is best to ensure pets, livestock and horses do not have access to this section of the river when mats are present.
Algae blooms can occur when warm water and nutrients combine to make conditions favorable for algae growth. Most algae species are harmless, however, some species may produce irritating compounds or toxins. Avoid discolored water, scums or mat material that are green or bluish-green because they are more likely to contain toxins.
To prevent illness, people should:
- Avoid contact with mats which may be present in North Fork Shenandoah River above and below the Town of Strasburg.
- If mats are unavoidable, do not attempt to recreate in the waterbody.
- WHEN IN DOUBT, KEEP PEOPLE AND PETS OUT! Use your best judgment before recreating in natural waterbodies.
- Do not allow children or pets to drink from natural bodies of water or consume material in the water or along the shoreline.
- Keep small children, pets, and livestock out of the areas experiencing an Algal Mat Alert. They do not understand the risks associated with mats and may drink river water or consume mats which could cause illness.
- If you or your animals experience symptoms after swimming in or near the area under an Algal Mat Alert, seek medical/veterinarian care. You may also contact your local poison control center.
- Additional resources for pet owners and veterinarians are available from the CDC at www.cdc.gov/habs
- To ensure fish filets are safe to eat, properly clean fish by removing skin, discarding all internal organs, and cooking fish to the proper temperature.
- To view the Algal Mat Alert area, view the HAB Map online or the Algal Mat Status Report for the North Fork Shenandoah River 8.5.22.
- To report an algae bloom or fish kill, use the online report form.
- If you suspect you or your animal experienced health-related effects following exposure to a bloom, contact the Virginia Harmful Algal Bloom Hotline at 1-888-238-6154. Please do not call this number for updates on sampling or status reports.
The Virginia Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, which includes the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the Old Dominion University Phytoplankton Analysis Lab, will continue to monitor mats in the river. In general, Algal Mat Alerts may be lifted following two consecutive observations where mats are not widespread and unavoidable and preferably, as resources allow, when water column cell counts and toxin concentrations are below safe swimming thresholds. An Algal Mat Alert may also be lifted or maintained at the discretion of the health department. For example, after one test an advisory may be lifted if results are within safe levels for swimming if other information indicates exposure or human health risk is low.
For more information about harmful algae blooms, Algal Mat Advisories and Recreational Water Advisories visit www.SwimHealthyVA.com.
17-year-old charged with ‘Driving Under the Influence’ in fatal Rockingham County two-vehicle collision – speed also cited as factor in ongoing investigation
According to Virginia State Police (VSP) a 17-year-old driver has been charged with “Driving Under the Influence” in the death of a 71-year-old driver in a mid-evening two-vehicle collision Wednesday, August 3, in Rockingham County. According to the VSP press release on the accident the northbound 2008 BMW driven by the unidentified 17-year-old minor male was “traveling at a high rate of speed” when it and a 1997 Mercury Villager attempting to make a left turn onto Route 42 after stopping at a westbound stop sign on Route 765, collided. There was one passenger in each vehicle, another 17-year-old male in the BMW, and a 78-year-old female in the Mercury. The investigation into the accident continues with additional charges being a possibility.
Both occupants of the Mercury, driver Gerald L. Will (71) of Hinton, Va., and Jean E. Will (78) also of Hinton, were transported from the scene with life-threatening injuries. The State Police Press Release from the desk of VSP Public Information Officer Sgt. Brent Coffey reported that the two involved 17-year-olds suffered “minor injuries” and were also transported from the scene for treatment. Ms. Will was transported to the UVA Medical Center, the other three involved parties to the Sentara RMH Medical Center. VSP reported that all four involved people were wearing seatbelts when the accident occurred.
Below is the VSP release on the fatal collision in its entirety:
Virginia State Police Trooper J. Joseph is investigating a two-vehicle fatal crash in Rockingham County. The crash occurred Wednesday, (August 3) at 9:25 p.m. at the intersection of Route 42 (Harpine Hwy) and Route 765 (Buttermilk Creek Rd).
A 1997 Mercury Villager was traveling west on Route 765 when it stopped at a stop sign. As the Mercury attempted a left turn onto Route 42 it collided with a northbound 2008 BMW 328I. The BMW was traveling at a high rate of speed.
The driver of the Mercury, Gerald L. Will, 71, of Hinton, Va., suffered life-threatening injuries due to the crash and was transported to Sentara RMH Medical Center, where he later succumbed to his injuries. He was wearing a seatbelt.
A passenger in the Mercury, Jean E. Will, 78, of Hinton, Va., suffered life-threatening injuries due to the crash and was transported to UVA Medical Center for treatment. She was wearing a seatbelt.
The driver of the BMW, a 17-year-old male, of Harrisonburg, Va., suffered minor injuries due to the crash and was transported to Sentara RMH Medical Center for treatment. The male was wearing a seatbelt.
A passenger in the BMW, a 17 year-old male, of Rockingham, Va., suffered minor injuries and was transported to Sentara RMH Medical Center for treatment. He was wearing a seatbelt.
The driver of the BMW was charged with driving under the influence.
The crash remains under investigation.
Laurel Ridge breaks ground on skilled trades center on Fauquier Campus
Laurel Ridge Community College opened a new chapter Tuesday when it ceremonially broke ground on the Fauquier Campus Center for Skilled Trades.
The 8,000-square-foot facility will provide space specifically designed for plumbing, electrical, HVAC, heavy equipment operator, carpentry and welding programs. It will also open the door for trades academy partnerships with Fauquier County and Rappahannock County school systems, Laurel Ridge President Kim Blosser said during Tuesday’s ceremony.
The new facility is possible thanks to a donation of 62 acres of land adjacent to the campus from Fauquier County to the Laurel Ridge Educational Foundation.
“It’s humbling to see how many folks have gotten behind this program,” said Jeanian Clark, vice president of Workforce Solutions and Continuing Education at the college. “These programs will finally have a home that they deserve and the noble honor of being affiliated with higher education on a community college campus.”
While Laurel Ridge’s Middletown Campus has been able to offer trades programs for decades, trades education in Fauquier has only been possible at leased locations, and – briefly – modular buildings that had been brought on campus.
“From Middletown to Northern Virginia, there were no trade schools in between,” Clark said.
As a result, students were driving very far in the evenings after work to come to Middletown for trades programs, so college officials had been on the hunt for appropriate space for quite a while.
Several years ago, the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors and County Administrator Paul McCulla asked how they could support the growth of Laurel Ridge, said Chris Coutts, vice president of communications and planning and the provost of the Fauquier Campus.
“We said this is something that is really, really important for the community and the college to be able to provide the training, the technical and workforce programs that the community needs,” said Dr. Coutts. “They saw the vision and what we wanted to create and made this possible. This is an absolute dream for us.”
About a year ago, the Educational Foundation launched a “Building the Future” campaign to invest in equipment, scholarships and instruction at the new facility, and is already more than halfway to its $1.5 million goal thanks to the generosity of community members, industry partners and the PATH Foundation.
“I stand here today giving you the commitment of the county to say yes to these types of projects, to say yes to public-private partnerships,” said McCulla. “We’re doing this for our citizens. We’re doing it for our children. We’re doing it for our grandchildren.”
Tuesday’s groundbreaking marked a new milestone for the college, said Dr. Blosser, noting the Eleanor C. and William A. Hazel Hall opens for Mountain Vista Governor’s School students next week and Laurel Ridge students on Aug. 22.
“We’re going to have more and more opportunities that we’ll be able to offer students in Fauquier and Rappahannock counties,” she said.
Three quarters of Shenandoah Waterway locations sampled unsafe for swimming because of high bacteria levels
About three quarters of Virginia’s water monitoring stations in the Shenandoah Valley found levels of fecal bacteria so high in the first half of 2022 that they exceeded EPA recommendations for warning people about the health risks of swimming or splashing in the water.
Seventy-six percent of Virginia Department of Environmental Quality sampling locations (44 of 58) in Shenandoah waterways from January 1 through July 12 of this year (the most recent available data) had levels of E. coli that were unsafe for swimming or recreation, according to an analysis of state monitoring numbers by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. In 2021, 60 percent (29 of 48) of the water monitoring stations in the Valley did not meet the standard. But those numbers are a slight improvement, if perhaps temporary, according to the independent environmental watchdog group EIP.
Both the first half of 2022, and all of 2021, had lower bacteria numbers than the average for 2015 to 2020, when almost 80 percent of samples had unhealthy levels of bacteria. Lower rainfall levels in 2021 may have temporarily reduced the runoff of manure and other pollutants that drive up bacteria levels in rivers and streams.
To examine an online map with details about Virginia’s bacteria monitoring results in locations up and down the Shenandoah Valley, and where it is safe to swim, click here.
“The bacteria levels in the Shenandoah River are still too high, and Virginia needs to do more to encourage – or require – streamside livestock fencing and prevent the chronic overapplication of manure to farm fields,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The Shenandoah Valley is a treasure that deserves better protections. We do recognize that Virginia is taking steps to increase funding for farm best management practices, including by adding streamside fencing, and that deserves praise.”
In March 2022, the Virginia General Assembly approved a record $265 million for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for farm pollution-control “best management practices” – including streamside livestock fencing and other steps to reduce runoff into waterways.
But, despite the persistently high bacteria levels in the Shenandoah, Virginia has posted no signs warning rafters, kayakers, or swimmers about bacteria levels – as it does regularly with swimming advisories on ocean beaches with high bacteria levels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends warning swimmers when concentrations of E. coli bacteria exceed 235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water.
Almost 160 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and 528,000 cows are raised annually in the Shenandoah Valley’s Augusta, Page, Shenandoah and Rockingham counties. Most of their manure is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but it contains far more phosphorus than crops need for growth. The excess manure leaks pollutants into groundwater and is often washed by rain into surrounding streams.
Bacteria levels in waterways are known to increase after periods of heavy rainfall because rain flushes fertilizer and sediment into rivers and streams. Total rainfall in Harrisonburg, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, was significantly lower in 2021 (about 37 inches) than the annual average from 2015 to 2020 (46 inches). That lower rainfall in 2021 could have temporarily reduced bacteria levels that year. Complete numbers are not yet available for 2022.
FECAL BACTERIA LEVELS IN SHENANDOAH WATERWAYS, 2015-2022
In April 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a study “Livestock Fencing in the Shenandoah Valley” that used aerial photographs of the livestock industry in to show that 81 percent of farms in the state’s two largest farming counties — Augusta and Rockingham — failed to fence their cattle out of streams, contributing to bacteria contamination.
This low fencing rate was despite a pledge by the state of Virginia to EPA that 95-percent of streams through pastures would have livestock fencing by 2025 to meet the goals of the state’s cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay.
The release of that April 2019 report spurred the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to perform its own aerial survey of livestock fencing. Virginia lawmakers then approved increased funding and reimbursement rates to encourage more farmers to install streamside livestock fencing. Legislators also passed a law that allows state officials to mandate streamside livestock fencing if the agricultural sector fails to achieve Bay pollution reduction goals by 2025.
As a result of the increased funding, an increased number of farmers in Virginia started enrolling in a state program to install livestock fencing. In Augusta and Rockingham Counties, the number of farmers signing up for the streamside fencing program grew from 26 in fiscal year 2019, to 38 in fiscal year 2020, to 55 in fiscal year 2021, and 40 in fiscal year 2022, according to data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
For more details about bacteria monitoring in the Shenandoah Valley, click here.
In October 2019, Virginia revoked its “beach action value” for E. coli in freshwater areas, which is a trigger value for potential health risks for people swimming or recreating in waters with more than 235 counts of E. coli/100 ml of water. The Commonwealth no longer has a beach warning value for freshwater areas like the Shenandoah River and issues no warnings when fecal bacteria levels are high in these areas.
However, despite Virginia’s change, EPA continues to recommend that states warn swimmers of potential health risks when E coli counts exceed 235 counts of E. coli/100 ml of water. So the Environmental Integrity Project in its annual reporting on the issue uses this level of bacteria as a yardstick of potential threat for water contact recreation.
(From a release by the Environmental Integrity Project. EIP is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to the enforcement of environmental laws and the strengthening of policy to protect public health and the environment.)