The Cottonwood Beach area in Birch Bay has been identified as one of three Whatcom County saltwater beaches that do not meet state clean water standards, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report.
The report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” compiled data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). State departments of health and ecology across the country conducted tests of specific beaches and sent the data to the EPA.
According to the report, 9 percent of water samples taken from the Cottonwood Beach area had a higher daily amount of fecal bacteria in them than state health standards allow. Eight percent of samples taken from Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park exceeded state standards while 7 percent of Marine View Park’s samples exceeded the standards.
For comparison, the dirtiest saltwater beach in Washington is at Freeland County Park/Holmes Harbor in Island County where testers found fecal bacteria above state limits in 20 percent of samples.
Fecal bacteria are found in human and animal waste and can end up in beach water that has been contaminated by faulty septic systems.
Three percent of tested Washington saltwater beaches exceeded state standards in 2009. The number is down from 4 percent of beaches in 2008 and 6 percent in 2006.
The Washington state departments of ecology (DOE) and health (DOH) work jointly with local agencies and volunteers to test the state’s beaches every year, said Jessica Archer, manager of the Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication and Health (BEACH) program for the DOE.
The tests are not specifically done for the NRDC report, Archer said. The NRDC just collects the data from the EPA and does its own analysis of it, she explained.
The results of the tests help determine if any beaches need to be closed, which the department of health has the authority to do, Archer said.
According to the report, there were 48 beach closings or advisories lasting six consecutive weeks or less in Washington in 2009. Twenty-six of the 2009 closings or advisories were due to known elevated fecal bacteria levels while the remaining number was due to preemptive action taken because of a nearby sewage leak or spill.
Whatcom County had no beach closings or advisories in 2009 due to high fecal bacteria levels.
The BEACH program deals specifically with monitoring beaches for fecal bacteria contamination, Archer said. Regular septic tank inspection and picking up after pets are two simple ways Birch Bay residents can improve the health of their beaches, she explained.
Archer said beach closures seem to be making Washington residents as a whole more aware of the effects fecal contamination have on their beaches.
She pointed out one of the easiest ways to stay safe at a saltwater beach is to look for posted signs that may mean the beach is under advisory or closed due to contamination.
Beaches can also be damaged by run-off from pesticides and nearby residents washing their cars in their driveways, Archer explained. The DOE runs educational programs intended to teach people more about protecting their beaches, she said.
For more information on the BEACH program, visit: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/eap/beach/
. The full NRDC beach quality report can be found by visiting: www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp
The status of every monitored, recreational swimming beach in Washington can be found at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/eap/beach/beachlist