The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is suing Virginia water protection officials to require large livestock operations to fence off rivers and streams from their animals.
The lawsuit, scheduled to be heard Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court, is aimed at keeping dairy cows, cattle, hogs and other livestock out of waterways that drain into the Chesapeake Bay. The bay is amid a multibillion-dollar restoration following decades of neglect.
The nonprofit foundation, which has pushed for the federally directed cleanup, said farm animals that are allowed to enter rivers and streams foul the water with their manure and urine and cause erosion, both of which ultimately end up in the bay.
The excessive flow of nutrients and sediment causes algae blooms and the creation of vast "dead zones" in the bay where no marine life exists, the foundation said.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and one of its agencies, the State Water Control Board, are named in the lawsuit. DEQ spokesman William Hayden said Monday that the department's policy is to not comment on ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit argues that the department and the board erred in March 2014 when they approved a new 10-year pollution abatement permit governing large dairy, cattle, pig and poultry farms.
The suit states that water protection officials declined to require Virginia's largest livestock operations to fence off streams to protect them from wandering farm animals. They instead backed "buffer zones" where manure cannot be applied to fields.
The foundation maintains that isn't enough and livestock should not have unfettered access to rivers and streams.
"We believe Virginia's Constitution and state law require the board to protect state waters for all of its citizens," Jon Mueller, the Bay Foundation's vice president of litigation, said in a conference call Monday.
The suit is aimed at about 70 so-called animal feeding operations, which are defined as large-scale livestock operations. A dairy farm of 200 head, for instance, would be defined as such an operation.
The offending farms are primarily cattle and dairy farms in the central and western part of the state, which includes the bay's watershed, bay officials said. They said some operators have voluntarily fenced streams and rivers, but many others have not.
"We think that the urgency of the program means that Virginia needs to speed up those efforts, but there certainly are a lot of good farmers in the state who have already incorporated this as part of their operations," said Peggy Sanner, a senior attorney with the foundation.
Federal and state cost-sharing is available to fence off water sources.
While the foundation maintains that agriculture has played a big role in the degradation of the bay, farm groups have countered that they are being asked to do a disproportionate share of the cleanup. Some 17 million people live within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes portions of six states and the District of Columbia.