Watching local water quality

Published on Thu, Oct 11, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Watching local water quality

By Meg Olson

Blaine public works crews replaced a crumbled section of sewer line under Marine Drive last week and volunteers in the Drayton Harbor community oyster farm project are hoping to notice a change.

For the past three months the group of eight volunteers has been sampling stormwater coming into the harbor to try to pinpoint where pollution gets into the harbor, and how to stop it. Once a month the group splits into teams and walks the eastern shoreline, measuring flow and water temperature in 11 storm drains and creeks, and takes a sample for fecal coliform analysis in the city of Blaine’s sewage treatment plant lab.

The state department of health has banned all shellfish harvest in the harbor because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, a sign of human and animal waste polluting the water. Until the numbers come down, harvesting oysters is off-limits on Drayton Harbor’s once-famous mudflats.

Fecal coliform levels have been consistently high in samples taken from two small streams at the eastern end of Blaine Harbor, near the boat ramp. “The fecal coliform levels didn’t change from dry conditions to wet, but the flow was much higher,” said project coordinator Geoff Menzies, which brings up the possibility that more than runoff is responsible for the high numbers. “We hope when the sewer is completely fixed, those numbers will go down.”

The monitoring project is the latest in a series of modest efforts to clean up the harbor funded through the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection Advisory Committee and the Puget Sound restoration fund. Earlier, they worked with the city on a camera survey of the Marine Drive sewer that found the collapsed sewer section and several other potential leaks. The community oyster farm came next, and teams of volunteers planted oysters in the harbor’s traditional commercial growing area, hoping the growing oysters become a catalyst for the community to clean up the harbor. Menzies said volunteers wanted to become more active in finding a solution, and the monitoring project was put together with funds, labor and expertise coming from state, county, the city, private interests and local citizens. “The level of partnership in this is great,” Menzies said. “The focus will be to bring all those partners together and determine what actions need to be taken and where.” Sampling is also being coordinated with a water quality program north of the border, which takes 30 samples around Boundary Bay on the same days volunteers sample Drayton Harbor.

Fecal coliform levels at some of the sites monitored have been measured over 100 times higher than state health officials deem safe for shellfish growing waters. In a ditch on the west side of Blaine Road which drains into Dakota Creek, levels were 1,000 times higher during a rain storm.

Volunteers venture out again with test kits in hand October 17, and would welcome more community participation. “Some of these sites are kind of ugly and smelly, and the volunteers want people to see that,” Menzies said.
Tom Cullen and his wife Kathy are two of the volunteers taking samples each month. “It’s hard work for old people,” Kathy laughed. “We’ve got our sticks and we’re trudging across the mud and climbing over rocks.” She said she hoped wider community involvement would allow the project to continue past the initial projected six months, possibly as a science project through the high school. “You learn an awful lot about science and chemistry and the environment – all sorts of things,” she said.

Tom Cullen said they enjoyed the project despite the hard work, and they were encouraged by finding spikes in the fecal coliform count that could be direct clues to a source. “When we find these high counts we have to trace them back to their source. This stuff comes from somewhere, and if we can find the sources it should be pretty easy to fix,” he said.

“We’re getting more data, learning more about this harbor,” Menzies said. “How that will affect the classification of the harbor will depend on the data. The big question is going to be what kicks us into further involvement.

Ultimately it depends on the community. What is an acceptable level of pollution coming off the city of Blaine? The sewage treatment plant has to meet discharge standards but for stormwater, anything goes. If we can do better, I say, let’s do better.”
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