BELLINGHAM - The search continues for what could be causing fecal bacteria levels to exceed federal standards for clean water at Wildcat Cove in Larrabee State Park and Little Squalicum Beach.
Meanwhile, posted beach advisories warn people against swimming or wading into the salt water to avoid being sickened. Children, the elderly and those in poor health have a greater risk of becoming ill, public health officials said.
"We recommend that you enjoy the water but that you not come in contact with the water, especially little kids who are more susceptible to illness," said Tom Kunesh, who oversees the sampling of beach water in the county through the Whatcom County Health Department.
Officials said pets also should avoid the water. If owners are unable to keep their pets out of the water, then bathe them afterward.
The beach advisories, marked by yellow warning signs, were posted at Wildcat Cove in June 2011 and at Little Squalicum Beach in summer 2012.
"There's no indication in the immediate future that we will be able to lift those advisories," Kunesh said.
A beach advisory is not as serious as a beach closure.
Wildcat Cove - a popular beach and boat launch area - and the beach at Little Squalicum Park were flagged for falling short of federal standards for clean water in 2012 in a report issued in late June 2013 by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That report also noted that Little Squalicum had the second dirtiest water in the state in 2012 of the beaches that were monitored.
Officials at the county health department and Washington state Ecology are unsure what's causing the contamination at Little Squalicum. At Wildcat Cove, raccoons pooping into the same damp spot near a stream that begins in a campground and empties into the cove near the boat launch is a likely source.
"We know that raccoon feces are a contributing factor," Kunesh said. "There's a bunch of them."
NATIONAL, STATE SNAPSHOTS
Called "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," the 23rd annual report also tracked the number of closing and health advisory days nationwide for beaches because of contamination that could make people sick.
It pulled from data submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency last year.
Beach monitoring in Washington state is overseen by the state departments of Ecology and Health - as the BEACH Program - which submit data to the EPA.
From the week before Memorial Day to Labor Day, the program monitors high-risk saltwater beaches for bacteria. Such beaches have a lot of recreational users and are near potential bacteria sources such as sewage treatment plants, septic tanks and stormwater drains.
The program includes volunteers, tribes and county health departments.
Officials here used EPA standards for beach water and monitored indicator bacteria called enterococci, a type of fecal bacteria that survives longer in salt water. (Tests of freshwater look for fecal coliform. Both types of bacteria are indicators of fecal contamination.)
In Whatcom County, 26 percent of samples taken last year from Wildcat Cove and 35 percent from Little Squalicum Park exceeded the daily maximum standards for those fecal bacteria, according to the council's report.
That's up from 8 percent in 2009 for Wildcat Cove, the year before sampling results showed a spike.
Monitoring at Little Squalicum Park began in 2011, and results showed that 18 percent of samples taken that year exceeded the daily maximum standards for enterococci.
Statewide, 4 percent of samples taken from beaches that were monitored in 2012 violated health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, according to the report.
That's down from 6 percent the previous year.
Nationwide, water quality is holding steady - 7 percent of beach water samples violated health standards in 2012, compared with 8 percent the previous year.
In Washington state, the dirtiest beach water was found at Freeland County Park/Holmes Harbor in Island County, where 36 percent of samples exceeded the standards for fecal bacteria. Little Squalicum Park in Whatcom County was second dirtiest at 35 percent.
To improve water quality, the NRDC continues to call for measures that curb polluted urban and suburban runoff that end up in the nation's coastal beaches.
Officials are trying to determine what's affecting overall water quality in Wildcat Cove, most notably since 2010 when test results began showing persistent high bacteria counts.
County and state officials have investigated vacation homes and the new sewage system at Larrabee State Park. They are not contributing to the water quality problems, according to Kunesh.
They've located failing septic systems at homes that border the cove and had them repaired.
Other possible contributors include beach wracks, which are large piles of kelp and eelgrass that accumulate at the high-tide line. The wracks aren't believed to be the source of fecal bacteria, but they could provide food and shelter - essentially acting as incubators that allow the bacteria to live longer than they normally would.
Then there's the small cove's physical makeup and its limited circulation, which means the water may not flush out well.
One known source is raccoons, which are living on campers' food and garbage.
"I would consider them urban raccoons that are thriving on the garbage," said Christopher Clinton, interim manager of the state's BEACH program. "They're eating garbage, that's why they're there."
And they're pooping near an unnamed stream that starts at the campground and empties into the cove.
To combat the fecal bacteria, county and state officials are getting help from the Northwest Straits chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Those volunteers are picking up the poop at the "raccoon latrine," Kunesh said, and educating campers about the problem.
"We'll definitely re-evaluate the end of the summer to see if we're getting any improvement, and go from there," Clinton said. "We're having the volunteers remove the poop more often this summer. That's not really a sustainable solution, but if we can get some kind of response at least we'll know we're heading in the right direction."
Even if they can't eliminated the elevated bacterial levels, Kunesh said that removing the raccoon feces will protect public health because it will keep pathogens in that feces - including E.coli, salmonella and parasitic disease such as roundworm - out of the water and, hopefully, away from people.
As for Little Squalicum Beach, the number of sites and frequency of monitoring there have increased to try to pinpoint the source of fecal contamination. There are six monitoring stations at the beach.
Samples so far show that pets at the park's dog off-leash area aren't "adversely impacting water quality," Kunesh said. Officials also don't believe that Little Squalicum Creek, which flows into the beach to Bellingham Bay, is a source of the contamination.
There could be other causes, Kunesh said, noting that Bellingham Bay is large and has a number of water sources flowing into it.
READ THE REPORT
Find the 2013 "Testing the Waters" report at this Natural Resources Defense Council webpage.
More on Washington state's BEACH program is at this Ecology webpage. The program monitors bacteria levels at popular, high-risk beaches. It also provides current beach status, monitoring data and maps.
FIND A BEACH
An online recreational tool from the Washington Department of Ecology helps people find public beaches in the state and Whatcom County by going to this Ecology webpage.
Users also can search by county for beach closures, which often are caused by sewage spills. They can find monitoring data as well. Do so by selecting "find beach closures" on the right on the home page.
HELP YOUR BEACH
Here's what you can do to keep beaches clean:
Don't feed wildlife, including raccoons.
Secure your food and trash to keep wildlife from getting into it.
Bag your pet's poop and throw it in the trash.
Inspect and maintain your home's septic system.
Pump the holding tank for your boat into an authorized pump station.
Pick up your trash, especially diapers.
Source: Washington state BEACH program
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.