Report card gives A+ for Birch Bay beaches

Published on Thu, Jun 23, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The majority of the beach along Birch Bay has been given an “A+” grade in the 2010 summer beach report card from a California-based environmental group.

Heal the Bay has been issuing report cards for beaches along California’s coast for the past 21 years, beach report card director Michael Grimmer said. The group began compiling results for Oregon and Washington beaches last year.

Heal the Bay takes data that is publicly available from state and county departments of health and ecology and collects it into a single report. Their mission is to help the public make decisions about what beaches they want to visit, Grimmer explained.
“We think all beachgoers deserve to know the quality of their beaches,” Grimmer said.

The report included data collected by the Whatcom County Health Department for three areas of Birch Bay. The data show that from Memorial Day through Labor Day of last year, two out of the three sites tested had low levels of fecal bacteria pollution in the surf zone. Only the south end of Birch Bay, north of Terrell Creek, was given a “D” grade.

Staff from the Whatcom County Health Department test those three specific sites once per week from mid-May to the first week of September, said Tom Kunesh, the environmental health supervisor with the county health department. The sites are about a half-mile apart and offer a good gauge of the overall quality of Birch Bay’s beaches.

The health department has identified Birch Bay, along with three other beaches across Whatcom County, as high-use beaches that have the greatest potential of being polluted with above-state-standard levels of fecal bacteria, Kunesh explained. As long as tests from these beaches turn up with medium to high levels of bacteria, they will continue to be tested regularly.

The beach along Birch Bay State Park is an example of an area that was tested regularly until bacteria levels dropped for a long enough period of time, Kunesh said. The county health department only tests the county’s saltwater beaches.

While exact sources of fecal bacteria can be difficult to determine, possible culprits along Birch Bay include water runoff from the uplands through outlets emptying onto the beach and beachgoers not cleaning up after their pets, Kunesh said. It’s nearly impossible to tell from what source a particular bacterial sample came without more expensive testing.

The data from regular sampling illustrate trends in a particular beach’s public safety levels, and Kunesh said the data for Birch Bay do not indicate a long-standing water quality problem. The county health department continually takes input from the public on the quality of beaches across the county and issues beach warnings if bacteria levels rise too high.

For the full report card and weekly local beach updates, visit