Bridge Raises Environmental Concerns

VDOT Project Blamed For Leading Cattle Into Water

Posted: March 4, 2014

Work has begun to replace a one-lane bridge over Cooks Creek on Oakwood Drive east of Bridgewater. The Shenandoah Riverkeeper environmental group has raised concerns that the new span’s design forces cattle into the waterway, which goes against the goals of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
The one-lane Cooks Creek bridge is being replaced by a new two-lane structure.

HARRISONBURG — A Valley environmental group is considering its next step after its attempt to alter a Virginia Department of Transportation bridge project was dismissed.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Boyce, filed the complaint Feb. 3 because of a concern a replacement bridge being built on Oakwood Drive will lead to cattle polluting Cooks Creek east of Bridgewater.

On Feb. 19, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services dismissed the Shenandoah Riverkeeper’s complaint, filed through the Agricultural Stewardship Act.

Cattle in the area have always used Cooks Creek to cross Oakwood Drive, but Shenandoah Riverkeeper says VDOT now has a responsibility to build into the new bridge’s design a way for them to cross.

VDOT, meanwhile, says it held a public hearing and already obtained all the necessary environmental permits to move forward with the replacement project.

The one-lane bridge, built in 1930, is just east of town limits. Work on the project, which entails a new two-lane span, began in December, and will cost an estimated $1.4 million.

Jeff Kelble, head of the Riverkeeper group, said Dwight Wenger, a farmer who owns pasture on both sides of Oakwood Drive, already has fenced his cattle out of the stream as much as possible. The busy road has forced him to cross his cattle under the bridge to gain access to all of his land.

Wenger declined comment for this story.

The new bridge’s design “leaves the landowner no choice but to allow his cattle to pass under, remain under and wallow under the bridge,” the complaint says. VDOT is “proposing to pollute with sediment, bacteria and nutrients …  the highly impaired Cooks Creek,” the complaint adds.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a plan known as the Total Maximum Daily Load to restore the badly polluted Chesapeake Bay. The central Valley is in the Bay watershed, so all the region’s streams and rivers eventually flow into the bay.

Virginia has taken steps to reduce water pollution in connection with the EPA plan.

Sandy Myers, spokeswoman for VDOT’s Staunton District, which includes Rockingham County, said the agency works with members of the public when it can, but must follow the law.

“VDOT is not assigned a Total Maximum Daily Load [amount] for this body of water at this location,” she said. “So that’s the law and we would abide by it, but we are not obligated to follow something that we have not been assigned.”

Elaine Lidholm, director of communications with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, confirmed the agency received the Shenandoah Riverkeeper’s complaint but said the matter was dismissed Feb. 19.

The agency does not have the authority to regulate a VDOT action as an “agricultural activity,” since that department is the bridge builder and the farmer is the owner of the activity, she said.

“In general, often an agricultural stewardship complaint is about a farmer letting cows or other livestock into the streams and, of course, they can release manure, which releases nitrogen,” Lidholm said. “So it’s up to the farmer to take whatever methods are necessary to keep his cattle out of the streams. Usually it is by fencing.”

Kelble said he is disappointed by the agriculture department’s decision to dismiss his complaint. He said his group made a conscious decision to file the complaint naming VDOT instead of the landowner, because the department

has control of the bridge and adjacent land.

Kelble contacted state agriculture officials with several questions regarding the agency’s decision. Shenandoah Riverkeeper has not given up yet and it is pondering its options for the next steps, he said.

Contact Jonathon Shacat at 574-6286 or jshacat@dnronline.com