Fecal bacteria on the rise in Whatcom County

Published on Wed, Mar 19, 2014 by Quinn Welsch

Read More News

Recent testing in Whatcom County show increased fecal coliform contamination of county waterways. Fecal coliform is a type of bacteria found in human and animal waste that can have diverse health effects.

Failing septic systems, wildlife and livestock are typically the main sources of fecal bacteria. Concentrated sources of contamination, such as manure in manure pools and pastures, can be washed into ditches, creeks, rivers and ultimately into our bays and harbors.

“Based on land use in the watersheds, agriculture is one of the main contributors,” said Andrea Hood, the Whatcom Clean Water Program coordinator. “One of the issues that has been repeatedly identified as a pervasive problem is pasture management,” she said to Whatcom County Council during a committee discussion on March 11.

In order to reduce contamination, the county needs to be more proactive by reaching out to the community and leading a local effort to monitor water quality, Hood said. The best type of support is local, said Jerrod Davis, director of the Washington State Department of Health’s shellfish program. Every county except Whatcom County has taken the lead to fund its own water correction programs, Davis said.

Currently, Whatcom County is ranked 10th out of 12 Puget Sound counties for water pollution identification and correction (PIC) funding. The county received $177,000 in grant money for its PIC program last year, which was the first time the county was awarded any PIC funds.

The money is distributed to Washington counties from the National Estuary Program (NEP), which distributed about $1.4 million in Whatcom County for other projects. In order to get more NEP money, the county needs to become more proactive in the grant process, Hood said. Part of that means making more commitments to monitor, track and coordinate actions to improve water quality, she said.

The last grant cycle for the PIC program just passed, so the county will be scrambling to pick up bits and pieces of NEP funding for next year, Hood said. But if the county can pull together its resources and develop a strong message to the community, it’s possible there could be a stronger source of funding in 2015, she said. 

In the meantime, the county is using what resources it has, said county public works planner Erika Douglas. The county’s public works department is trying to improve its water quality monitoring and community outreach, she said.

There have also been some improvements in areas such as Drayton Harbor, Douglas said. The harbor’s approved shellfish harvesting area is now only closed from November to January, instead of November to February. 

The month-long extension in shellfish harvesting is a result of decreased fecal coliform bacteria in the Drayton Harbor watershed. The watershed’s primary source of contamination are Dakota and California creeks. Improvements in dairy regulations and septic and stormwater systems in Blaine have all played a part in improving the harbor, Hood said. 

Despite the improvements, Drayton Harbor still doesn’t meet state standards. The harbor’s conditionally approved zone only consists of a portion of its western half. The rest of the harbor is still closed to shellfish harvesting.

Other areas that are increasingly contaminated with fecal bacteria include Portage Bay, which is currently approved for shellfish harvest but may be downgraded, and North Chuckanut Bay. 

For a complete list of shellfish harvesting closures, shellfish protection districts and water quality monitoring in Whatcom County, visit whatcomcounty.us/publicworks, or check out the Whatcom Clean Water Program’s website at ecy.wa.gov/water/whatcomcleanwater

The Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee met on Wednesday, March 19, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Blaine Harbor Boating Center conference room at 235 Marine Drive to discuss the issue.