Streamside Fencing

streamside-fencing_LauraLaRose_flickr_wolfsavard-4722658139 1171x593

Streamside fencing is a simple way to prevent pollution in streams and to protect the health of livestock.

© Laura LaRose/(CC BY 2.0)

One of the most important farm conservation practices we can implement across the Chesapeake watershed—both for the health of our waters and the health of our farms—is that of streamside fencing.

Agriculture is the largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. But implementing conservation practices, like streamside fencing, will not only benefit farmers and achieve a restored Bay—worth an estimated $130 billion annually in economic, public health, and environmental benefits—but will also make significant gains toward the nation’s climate goals and improve the well-being of the more than 18 million people who call the watershed home.

Urge Congress to Pass a Bay-Friendly Farm Bill!
Take Action

Farming is deeply rooted in the Chesapeake region's culture, heritage, and economy. Today the region has more than 83,000 farms, with one-third of the Chesapeake Bay's 64,000 square-mile watershed dedicated to farming. It's no wonder then that the way we farm has profound consequences for the health of our communities, our environment, and our local economies.

Installing fences along streams in pasture areas is a simple but essential way to reduce pollution on farms. Fences keep livestock and their waste out of waterways, reducing pollution and erosion and helping prevent the spread of waterborne disease. Water pumps and lines, and even solar-powered mobile watering stations, can provide viable alternative water sources for the animals. In addition, the purchase of necessary supplies and labor benefits local businesses. While streamside fences do not affect greenhouse gas emissions, they are often used together with other practices that do—such as streamside forest buffers and grazing systems.

Why Is Fencing Cattle Out of Streams Important?

As colonialists moved into the Chesapeake region, more and more land was converted to agriculture, including herds of dairy and beef cattle.

Historically, the easiest way to help those cattle stay cool and hydrated during the summers was to give them direct access to the streams that weaved through the area. That practice continues on many farms today. However, scientific studies have found that this practice is harmful for the health of the cattle, local streams, and even human health for the following reasons: 

  • Nitrogen and phosphorus: Cattle manure is a large source of these stream pollutants that cause harmful algal blooms and deter aquatic plant growth. 
  • Sediment: Cattle hooves digging into the streambeds and banks results in muddier runoff into streams, and the damaged streambanks are less able to capture polluted runoff from upland areas. Sediments smother habitat for sensitive species like the Eastern hellbender and brook trout. 
  • Pathogens: Disease-causing bacteria and viruses are prevalent in manure, so downstream livestock are susceptible to infectious diseases such as mastitis, Johne’s disease, Leptospirosis, and parasites such as Cryptosporidium. In humans, incidental ingestion of pathogens can cause illnesses like acute gastroenteritis.  
  • Endocrine-disrupting compounds: Ingestion  of environmental pollutants and the use of steroids are two ways these compounds make their way into manure. As a result, manure can be a source of chemicals implicated in contributing to intersex fish conditions, like smallmouth bass in the lower Susquehanna River, and growing concerns of reduced fertility and metabolic disorders in people.

Many large animal vets have noted for decades that cattle with direct access to streams tend to be less healthy and less productive because the waters they wade in and drink are laden with pollutants and pathogens. But unlike colonial times, today a fairly simple solution exists—livestock exclusion fencing. Also called streambank fencing, this practice involves setting up a fence no less than 12 feet from the top of the streambank. 

Since the fencing restricts access to the stream,  watering troughs and, where necessary, stabilized stream crossings accompany the placement of the fence.

Many times, native trees, shrubs, and grasses are planted in the area between the fence and streambank for added beauty and benefits. The added vegetation helps slow down, spread out, and filter any polluted runoff coming from the adjacent landscape. It also provides habitat to land and water critters, including beneficial pollinators. And trees eventually provide shade to help keep streams and herds cool during the summer. 

Streamside Fencing in Pennsylvania

Section 702 of Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law prohibits any governmental entity from requiring streambank fencing. Despite this, many farmers have voluntarily adopted the practice. Many more are interested. 

You can help get more streambank fencing and other conservation practices in place by:

Find out more about farming and clean streams in Pennsylvania in our document Pennsylvania Farmers: Striving for a Legacy of Healthy Soils and Clean Water.

Streamside Fencing in Maryland

Keeping livestock out of waterways is not law in Maryland, but it is a requirement within the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Program. This program, which farmers are required to follow when fertilizing crops and managing animal waste, helps protect water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Farmers who violate the livestock exclusion provision or any other nutrient management regulation risk losing eligibility for the Maryland Agricultural Cost-Share Program.

For farmers who are interested in implementing streamside fencing on their property, there are options to get started. Options include:

Streamside Fencing in Virginia 

Unfortunately, streamside fencing to keep livestock out of Virginia waterways is not a legal requirement. In 2023, the General Assembly passed a law that acts as a compromise between farmers and those promoting stream exclusion for water quality. This law requires the state to form a plan to accomplish its goals for reduction of agricultural pollution by including nutrient management on croplands and exclusion of livestock from streams. If adequate progress toward these goals has been accomplished by July 1, 2028, then livestock exclusion will likely not become mandatory.

While there are no legal requirements in Virginia, with unprecedented amounts of funding for agricultural conservation programs, there is no better time for farmers to reach out to conservation partners and state agencies for technical assistance in implementing streamside fencing. Options include:


Header photo ©Laura LaRose Creative Commons license Flickr

Support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Your donation helps the Chesapeake Bay Foundation maintain our momentum toward a restored Bay, rivers, and streams for today and generations to come.

Donate Today


Do you enjoy working with others to help clean the Chesapeake Bay? Do you have a few hours to spare? Whether growing oysters, planting trees, or advocating for a clean Bay, there are plenty of ways you can contribute.

This website uses cookies to tailor and enhance your online experience. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, including details on how to disable cookies, please visit our Privacy Policy. Close