BLAINE - From the back of a slowly moving boat, Kay Rottell poured red dye into Drayton Harbor near the mouth of Dakota Creek.
Rottell is an environmental engineer with the Washington state Department of Health.
On Tuesday, Dec. 10, she was part of a team of people who went out onto the harbor to track the non-toxic dye using electronic sensors for a study.
The study's goal is to gather data to better understand how Dakota Creek circulates in the harbor and to what extent the creek's water affects commercial and tribal shellfish harvesting there as it moves out into the Straight of Georgia.
"What we want to understand: Is the pollution that we're seeing in the shellfish beds out there coming from Dakota Creek? That will give us a much better idea if that occurs," said Jule Schultz, with the Washington state Department of Health's shellfish program.
The agency regulates the shellfish industry in the state, and Schultz is overseeing the study.
Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm has a commercial operation there. The harbor also is a harvest area for the Lummi and Nooksack tribes.
Initial findings on Wednesday indicated that water from the creek does flow over the shellfish beds, Schultz said, but what's unknown for now is the extent of the impact.
Dakota Creek is one of the primary freshwater sources for the harbor; the other is California Creek.
Fecal coliform bacteria from both creeks pollute Drayton Harbor, where shellfish operations are closed each year from November through February, during the wettest months, because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.
Fecal coliform bacteria come from human and animal feces. The bacteria enter the harbor and other Whatcom County waterways in several ways - horse and cow manure, pet and wildlife waste, and failing septic systems.
People can become sick after coming into contact with polluted water or eating tainted shellfish.
The dye study is part of a larger monitoring and cleanup effort from a coalition of federal, state, local and tribal agencies. That work includes conducting intensive weekly water-quality monitoring in Drayton Harbor, at 22 sites, and at 15 to 25 sites in the lower reaches of Dakota and California creeks this winter.
It's the first year for the more intensive sampling, with the idea of better understanding the connection between freshwater and marine water during the winter closure, according to Erika Douglas, senior planner for marine resources in the Whatcom County Public Works Department.
Water quality in Drayton Harbor has improved over the years, officials said, but fecal coliform readings continue to be high during what's also known as the wet season, when polluted runoff enters the harbor after heavy rain.
Current efforts will help verify how much of an impact Dakota and California creeks are having on marine waters during winter, and help direct cleanup efforts.
"We're really trying to make sure that we're focusing our resources in the places that need the most help," Douglas said. "It's helping us prioritize those hot spots."
Ultimately, the goal is that water quality improves enough to allow Drayton Harbor to be reopened for winter shellfish harvest.
Officials said they are working with the community to reduce the pollution.
"What we're trying to do is identify and correct the fecal bacteria sources," said Andrea Hood, coordinator of the Whatcom Clean Water Program. "So lots of monitoring to identify the problems and then offering technical and financial assistance to people who live in the areas to make the fixes that need to be made."
- Drayton Harbor Community Shellfish Farm: restorationfund.org/projects/csf/draytonharbor.
- Whatcom County Public Works: whatcomcounty.us/publicworks. Click on "natural resources" on the left on the home page, then "shellfish protection districts."
- Whatcom Clean Water Program: ecy.wa.gov/water/whatcomcleanwater.
- Washington Department of Health: doh.wa.gov. Type "shellfish safety" into the search window.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.