VIMS: Water Quality Data Suggest No Stormwater Impacts from Poultry Houses

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By Linda Cicoira — Accomack County folks don’t need a study to tell them about the abundance of rainfall in the last year. They lived it. The water has made ponds in our yards. The accompanying mud has clung to our shoes and made its way into our houses. Ditches are full and sometimes overflowing. 

If stormwater runoff from chicken houses could be a problem, now would be the time. But the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) studied the issue and reported: “in general, the spatial variability in the data for all parameters and the lack of correlation of any high values to poultry sites does not suggest stormwater runoff impacts from poultry operations.”

That means the chicken houses are not causing runoff problems. Will it stay like that as the influx of poultry houses age? VIMS says, “Further sampling at these locations will monitor any changes in these water quality parameters as the poultry operations mature, and will help to assess the adequacy of siting regulations to ensure they are protective of the marine resources downstream of these operations.”

“High nitrogen values were recovered during all three sampling events at the stream crossing Bobtown Road near the intersection of Hollies Church Road,” the report stated. But “no poultry operations are in this watershed. … For all samples taken in watershed segments containing poultry operations with any chance of receiving runoff or groundwater, no differences were found when compared to watershed segments with no poultry operations.”

“Warm-blooded animal or human fecal contamination were generally elevated in all samples, with the highest concentrations occurring in areas not containing poultry operations or litter applications,” the report found. “High Fecal indicator counts are common on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the wooded stream basins and wooded swamps characteristic of ESVA watersheds provide habitat for wildlife that contributes to these data … Many homes in the watersheds and (those) close to waterways have drain fields with a potential to add fecal loads to the stream flow. Outhouses and cesspools are known to exist but were not located or surveyed in the study.”

The VIMS study was a bit complicated and filled with scientific information. A link to the study and the 2019 Annual Poultry Report is available at www.co.accomack.va.us/home/showdocument?id=11067

Zoning permits have been authorized for 240 poultry houses since July 1, 2014, in Accomack County. Fifteen more houses are proposed and pending. The county’s planning staff estimates that 284 houses existed before that time.

“Historically speaking, the majority of the poultry houses in the county were located north of Parksley,” the report stated. “Since 2014, a significant number of new poultry houses have been located south of Parksley.” The report states, “It is not entirely surprising that concerns are being raised given the relatively small number of poultry houses that existed in the southern part of the County prior to 2014.”

The report boasts that the county amended its zoning ordinance in Feb 2016 “to tighten regulations regarding confined poultry operations” and received expert advice from the health department regarding the updates. 

“Another notable ordinance amendment occurred in July 2017 when the county removed the possibility of new poultry houses being constructed in residential and general business zoned areas, ” the poultry report states. 

Groundwater withdrawal has also gotten a lot of attention with permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) being required for those withdrawing 300,000 gallons of water a month or more. 

“A groundwater withdraw number of 3.1 million gallons per day was widely circulated throughout the community,” the recent county poultry report stated. “The 3.1 million-gallon per day withdraw was an estimate for all poultry houses that have a Virginia Pollution Abatement Permit from DEQ. The 3.1 million gallon number does not reflect projected actual usage and is approximately 37 percent higher than the high range of staff estimates for usage.”

The staff estimated drinking and cooling needs per poultry house at “70,950 gallons per month – Low Range; 81,625 gallons per month – Mid Range; 152,875 gallons per month – High Range.”

“Each poultry farm’s stormwater management system has been designed to make sure that the peak flow rate leaving the developed site will be less than or equal to the peak flow rate in the pre-developed condition,” the report noted.

Still, in the last year, DEQ determined 54 poultry operations need groundwater withdrawal permits.

The economic impact from Perdue and Tyson processing plants was also included in the county report. Payroll figures presented to the county board of supervisors in January 2016 was $121,251,000. “The local economy also benefits from the poultry industry with employment and payroll” of “poultry growers and farm workers, truck drivers, grain elevators, and grain farmers.”

The report also noted future items to consider and monitor are “ammonia and airborne particulates, groundwater withdraw regulation and law modification relative to the Columbia aquifer, buffer effectiveness, personal property taxes, and groundwater withdraw.”

The county report also states “two of the recently constructed poultry operations are utilizing the surficial Columbia aquifer for some of their water supply.” This upper aquifer was recommended by the local groundwater board for use as the deeper aquifer replenishes at a much slower rate.