The Unnamed Tributary
The unnamed tributary. That little creek, or seep, or spring, or bog, or wetland without a name begins its life as surface water when it emerges from the ground. Most streams don’t have a name. In fact, about 60 percent of all streams are unnamed. I’ll bet you know of an unnamed tributary. Ever think about where that water goes?
Groundwater bubbles from the ground and begins its surface water journey to the sea. These are headwater streams and most likely not protected by the Clean Water Act of the United States. But they have a huge and often overlooked impact on water quality.
We have a headwater stream on our farm in Churchville, Virginia. It’s an unnamed tributary of Whiskey Creek. Hmm . . . how about a name? What goes in Whiskey? Please send me your suggestion.
Our little unnamed tributary bubbles up from the ground in a pasture along Scenic Highway and begins its journey: first to Whiskey Creek and then goes on to Jennings Branch, Middle River, the South Fork of the Shenandoah, the Shenandoah, the Potomac, and finally to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Our unnamed tributary is one of over 100,000 that make up the streams in the 64,000-square-mile watershed of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Bovines Will Be Fenced Out
Cattle have had access to our unnamed tributary forever—but that’s about to change. We bought our Churchville farm last year in September and enrolled in the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program through the Headwaters Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). Specialists from the district will help us fence off the tributary from livestock and provide them with water from a well. We will build a fence like the one pictured below.
The specialists will also help us plant trees and shrubs along the tributary to make a riparian forest buffer. This buffer will help cleanse the water and provide much-needed wildlife habitat. And besides, we don’t want our cattle in the wet areas. There are many reasons farmers don’t want their livestock in the water. One big one for us is to avoid the possibility of our cows giving birth there, where a newborn calf might perish.
Lots of Help Available
Other conservation partners are also helping us take better care of our unnamed tributary. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is providing some unique incentives with a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Headwaters SWCD has additional funds from the South River DuPont Settlement Fund. We also receive technical assistance from the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Friends of Middle River. Below I’ll list each organization’s assistance. My point here is that many resources are available to help farmers fund and design a system that works with and for them, helping them take on what might be considered a large and complicated project to improve water quality and help manage the farm.
100 Percent Reimbursement Plus a Buffer Payment
Our little unnamed tributary is about a quarter-mile long and flows most of the year. We will install a woven-wire fence 35 feet from the edge of each side of the stream for a total of 3,500 feet at a cost of $4.50 per foot. The Headwaters SWCD reimbursement will be 90 percent and the South River DuPont settlement fund will reimburse us 10 percent.
We will also receive a buffer payment of $80/acre/year of the contract for land excluded from livestock, in a lump sum. In this case, with six acres, we will receive $7,200.
Cattle Watering Facility
The programs also reimburse us 100 percent of the cost of providing our cattle with watering stations. Headwaters’ specialists designed the watering system. Below is a picture of one of our watering corrals that has four gates that open to different pastures. We used guardrails that come in 26-foot sections and 14-foot gates to make a 40′ by 40′ corral.
We selected Ritchie, frost-free waterers. They use the earth’s thermal heat to keep them from freezing so we don’t need electricity to heat the water in the winter. The installation cost for the trough was $2,500. We received 100 percent reimbursement from Headwaters and the DuPont settlement. The corral with guardrail cost more than the average cost allowed by the Headwaters SWCD. We used funds from the Alliance’s Healthy Streams, Sustainable Forest grant to cover the additional cost.
Tree Planting Preparation
Professional foresters helped us develop a tree-planting plan and we selected a contractor to prepare the buffer for tree seedlings that we will plant this coming fall. The estimated cost for establishing this forested buffer is $1,800 per acre. We have approximately six acres to plant along our unnamed tributary.
List of Partners and What They Do
Headwaters Soil and Water Conservation District: Technical assistance (design and layout), funding (Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program, DuPont/Waynesboro Settlement Fund)
Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Technical assistance (layout and measuring for reimbursement), volunteers to plant trees
Virginia Department of Forestry: Technical assistance (hardwood tree planting plan)
Friends of the Middle River: Water quality testing, tree planting
Why Are We Taking These Measures?
We could not complete these projects without help from many sources. Because of their help, we can rotate our pastures, prevent calving mortality in wet areas, improve herd health, and get the cows into the barn easier. These are the main reasons we are taking these measures as farmers. As stewards of the land and livestock we own, we are taking on these projects because we want to leave our farm better than when we found it. Everybody lives downstream and we want to do our part on our little piece of earth so that generations to come can share the beauty and bounty that we have.
Every Person, Every Tributary
What will it take to clean up the streams in your watershed? Every person caring for every tributary.
Do you have an unnamed tributary on your farm? Would you like more water distributed throughout the farm? Would you like an easier way to get your cows into the barn? Have any of your calves perished in wet areas on your farm?
Contact me or your local Soil and Water Conservation District to find out what programs are available to help you improve the land and water on your farm.