Washington Department of Ecology inspectors are taking water samples and identifying sources of fecal coliform bacteria in Bertrand Creek watershed to clean up pollution that could sicken people and is threatening Lummi Nation shellfish beds in Portage Bay.
"The water sampling shows that the fecal coliform levels in the Bertrand Creek watershed continue to rise, and they have for the last 10 years," said Dustin Terpening, Ecology spokesman. "They do not meet state and federal standards for clean water."
Those bacteria levels are three times greater than they were in 2003, when they last met standards.
The work is part of a larger, multi-agency effort called the Washington Shellfish Initiative, which seeks to protect and restore thousands of acres of commercial, recreational and tribal shellfish harvesting sites in Puget Sound, beginning with Samish Bay in Skagit County and continuing with the Bertrand Creek watershed, in north Whatcom County near Lynden.
Later this year, the fecal coliform cleanup will expand to Drayton Harbor watershed in Blaine. Whatcom County Public Works is monitoring water quality in California and Dakota Creeks in that watershed, and will work with the community to reduce the pollution.
In Drayton Harbor, commercial shellfish operations are closed each year from November through February because of high fecal coliform bacterial levels, although on Friday, April 12, the Washington Department of Health closed the harbor to commercial harvesting.
Water samples taken earlier in the week where California and Dakota drain into Dratyon Harbor showed "very high levels of fecal coliform," said Bob Woolrich, shellfish growing area manager with the Department of Health. Additional water samples will be taken Monday, he said, and commercial shellfish harvesting will reopen once fecal coilform levels are safe.
Ecology and the state Department of Health are leading the effort in Bertrand Creek.
Fecal coliform bacteria come from human and animal feces. The bacteria enter Whatcom's waterways several ways - horse and cow manure, pet and wildlife waste, and failing septic systems.
Bertrand Creek watershed covers about 421/2 square miles, with 47 percent of it in the U.S. and 53 percent in Canada. McClellan Creek, Duffner Ditch and Francisco Creek are the major waterways that flow into Bertrand Creek and, ultimately, into the Nooksack River.
The river empties into Portage Bay, where there are beaches, fishing, boating and commercial shellfish harvesting. People can become sick after coming into contact with polluted water or eating tainted shellfish.
A coalition of federal, state and tribal and local agencies is working to improve water quality in Whatcom County, supported by $1.4 million from the Environmental Protection Agency. The effort is part of the state's shellfish initiative launched in 2011 to protect recreational shellfish harvesting and the aquaculture industry - farmed clams, mussels and oysters - that are worth more than $107 million a year in Washington.
In Bertrand Creek watershed, Ecology inspectors are monitoring bacteria levels and scheduling visits to properties to find contamination sources.
"We're really interested in working with landowners to help them understand what the problems are," said Andrea Hood, program coordinator with the state Health Department's Office of Shellfish and Water Protection.
The agencies also will provide technical help to property owners and direct them to sources for financial assistance, Terpening said.
"Ultimately, we want to keep the waste out of the water," he said.
Water samples also will be taken from three places in Canada - Bertrand Creek, Cave Creek and Jackman Ditch - to help determine how much fecal coliform bacteria is coming from there and how much from Whatcom County.
"We're recognizing that pollution can come over (the border)," Hood said.
The head of the Washington State Dairy Federation supports the effort, saying the Lummis have a right to be able to harvest their shellfish, and pointing to Ecology's efforts in Samish to work with farmers.
"Nobody's had to go out of business in the Samish, nobody's lost their farm," said Jay Gordon, executive director of the dairy organization. "It's been very common sense. I hope the same thing happens here."
He said he hoped the automatic response from regulators would not be to blame dairies in the watershed, but to do the more expensive and slower work of examining other factors, such as septic systems and geese and swans.
"We'll take the blame if it's us to blame," Gordon said. "We just want to fix the problem."
The worsening water quality in Bertrand Creek watershed has been an ongoing concern for Lummi Nation, whose shellfish beds in Portage Bay could be downgraded from their current approved status if the fecal coliform pollution isn't cleaned up.
The Lummis have been there before. Their shellfish beds were closed for six years - ending in 2003 - because sewage and manure fouled the Nooksack River, costing tribal members and their families millions of dollars and affecting cultural as well as subsistence harvest.
At that time, Ecology embarked on a cleanup plan using new state legislation approved in 1998 that required dairy farms to undergo routine inspections and create written plans for how they would contain manure and prevent it from washing into public waterways. Before 1998, dairy farms were only inspected if a complaint was made about a farmer.
The cleanup was a success and allowed those tribal shellfish beds to reopen in 2003.
But, the Lummis wrote in a May 2010 letter to the EPA, cuts to budgets and enforcement created regulatory gaps. They want state and federal regulators to fix the current "animal waste management practices."
"When they get shut down, it puts them in a real tough position," Leroy Deardorff, environmental director for Lummi Natural Resources Department, said of the impact on tribal harvesters.
"It's a burden that we shouldn't have to bear," he said. "We don't cause the pollution. We receive it, unfortunately."
ON THE WEB
Click on the links below:
Washington Department of Health. Type "shellfish safety" into the search window.
Washington Department of Ecology. Click on "water" or "saving Puget Sound" on the home page.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.