Programs help landowners keep the watershed clean

Published on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 by Brandy Kiger

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There’s water, water everywhere in Terrell Creek, but not a drop to drink.

The Terrell Creek watershed has been an infamous source of poor water quality in the Birch Bay area over the years. High levels of fecal coliform bacteria are consistently reported in testing sites, and the levels of contamination in the area have occasionally resulted in a ban on shellfish harvesting, typically after periods of heavy rainfall. 

The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and the Whatcom Conservation District have now partnered to tackle the persistent water quality problem, and have formed an outreach program called the “Clean Terrell Campaign.” The campaign provides incentives to landowners who take needed measures that will help improve the health of the watershed. 

Watersheds consist of an intricate network of creeks, streams, rivers and lakes that flow into a common outlet. Many factors can affect the health of a watershed, and numerous ways by which health can be compromised. Leaky septic systems, poor conservation practices, wild animals and livestock are typical sources of contaminants. And, as one tributary flows into another, it passes those contaminants along, making what might seem like a localized problem a widespread one. Rachel Vasak, an area resident and the campaign’s spokesperson, said the Terrell Creek watershed has been a victim of all these factors. “We believe that the water quality has been degraded by a combination of human, wild animal and livestock impacts,” she said. Vasak has worked in the Terrell Creek watershed since 1994, and is excited about what the program can do to help reduce potential contaminants in the waterways.

The outreach program, which started in June 2012 and is funded by grants, address the contamination in three key ways: conservation planning, riparian areas and septic system inspection. 

Conservation planning is geared toward landowners who live in the watershed and own livestock or farm. It helps identify ways to increase land productivity and improve animal health while making sure that contaminants don’t impact streams, ditches or wetlands on or near the landowner’s property. It looks at the slope of the land, soil types, land uses and land use goals, and then offers recommendations for how to address those problems. Solutions might include installing waterway fencing, establishing manure management techniques, rethinking pasture management or adding gutters and downspouts to structures – whatever is best suited to the landowner’s needs. Through the program’s grant funding, the materials for any improvement projects that will protect the watershed are purchased at no cost to the landowner.

Riparian area management takes a look at the land surrounding waterways, and how planting native plants along ditches, creeks and wetlands can help improve runoff problems, shade creeks and streams to keep temperatures cooler for native fish and provide a natural filtration system for contaminants. It helps landowners plant native trees and plants free of cost. “We can buy the plants for them and they can plant them, or we can do it all,” Vasak said. 

The septic system inspection initiative reimburses landowners up to $100 for getting their on-site septic inspected. Many properties in the rural watershed rely on septic systems, and Whatcom County requires septic systems to be inspected annually. With the incentive program, this cost is mitigated. “It costs $100 to $300 to have the inspection done. With the program you bring in the receipt, and you get $100 cash back,” Vasak said. 

Vasak said that the three-prong program is aimed at helping landowners find the best solution for their situation. “If a landowner hypothetically had all three situations, but they only wanted to do fencing or septic, they can pick and choose. It’s what’s most useful for them,” she said. “It’s a win for them and a win for the environment,” Vasak said. 

Participants in the program meet with Vasak for a confidential consultation and go over their goals for the land. “I sit down with them and ask them what they want, we walk the property and we have a conversation.” Once a plan is decided on, Vasak files any required paperwork for the landowner and gets the ball in motion. 

“It’s completely voluntary, completely noncommittal. I can offer solutions, but I’m not going to push solutions if they’re not right for the landowner. We’re just looking for ways we can leverage the grant funding to meet the needs of landowners and the needs of the watershed,” she said. “There are a lot of resources out there that people don’t know about. If I can help take the beauracracy out of it and help them understand the system, that’s great.”

For more information or to schedule a confidential consultation to see what solutions might work for your property and livestock, contact Rachel Vasak at 360/739-1440 or by email at

More information about the program can also be found at the Conservation District’s webstite at