Heavy rains could be the link to sudden pollution highs

Published on Thu, Feb 28, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Heavy rains could be the link to sudden pollution highs

By Meg Olson

Efforts to reopen Drayton Harbor to shellfish growers suffered a setback after state samplers found a jump in fecal coliform levels at every spot they sampled in the harbor.

“Things were looking a little better until we came in here last month and got really lousy numbers,” state shellfish specialist Don Lennartson told the members of the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee at their February 20 meeting. “I was disappointed because I had hoped we were moving into better results thanks to all the hard work that’s gone on.”

Samples collected January 9 found every station out of five in the Blaine marina and six in the main harbor failed to meet state and federal standards for fecal coliform bacteria, which originate in waste from warm-blooded animals, in shellfish growing areas. When those numbers are added to the batch of 30 samples the state uses to decide if an area should be open or closed for shellfish growing, it makes local hopes to harvest oysters in the next three years less likely.

“I keep hoping a smoking gun will be discovered,” Lennartson said. “We’ve had a couple of apparent smoking guns that have been remedied and it hasn’t seemed to help.”

Lennartson said that, over the last 30 samples, there have only been two peaks in the main harbor before the latest one that would skew the statistics the state uses to classify shellfish areas – one in the winter of 1998 and a smaller one in spring, 2001. “We have an understanding of that first peak but not the second,” said advisory committee president Geoff Menzies. “In 1998 there was an overflow in the Marine Drive sewer system right before the samples were taken.”

The recent jump in fecal coliform numbers, like the peak in early 2001, has no easy answers; there were no problems at the city’s treatment plant and no overflows to blame in the days before sampling, city public works director Grant Stewart confirmed. What there was, was rain.

“We had over an inch of rain in the three days before the samples,” Menzies said. “That’s the Cardell theory,” he said, referring to long-time committee member Margaret Cardell who has recorded rainfall data and compared it to fecal coliform levels since the state first shut the harbor down. “There’s fecal coliform bacteria out there that’s lying around and it’s being flushed down,” agreed committee member Bjorn Hrutfiord.
“When we get an inch of rain over three or four days it really leads to problems,” said Menzies. “We have 54 square miles of watershed that drains into Drayton Harbor. When every station goes belly-up that’s what’s happening: heavy rain, saturated soil, not a lot of filtration – it’s the kind of situation where everything is overloaded.”

Menzies said that without more frequent and more targeted sampling than the monitoring done by the state every other month, it was unlikely they could narrow in on the link between rainfall and spikes in fecal coliform levels.

“There isn’t enough predictability to these spikes,” he said. “If there was predictability, there could be a conditional classification.” The state allows shellfish harvesting in some areas based on rainfall and seasonal conditions. For example, Oakland Bay shellfish growers cannot harvest for five days if there has been one inch of rain in the preceeding 24 hours. In Samish Bay, there are seasonal closures.

Lennartson agreed that more data could get a conditional opening for the harbor. “A criterion for a prohibited area is that it’s unpredictable,” he said. He suggested outside funding could be sought for additional sampling, as his department was already doing more than was legally required, and more than they had budget for. He added that conditional classification was a good short-term objective, but not the goal. “I want to see it approved,” he said.

With numbers consistently high in Blaine Harbor, Menzies suggested the group work on tackling possible pollution sources there – from live-aboard boaters to fish processors and practices that attract scavengers, while looking at how to get more focused sampling for the main harbor.
“We have to wrestle with things we have some control over,” he said. “We need to take a hard look at everything that affects this marina. Even if the other stations were to go below the threshold, I’m not sure the state health department would reopen the harbor with these numbers in the marina.” Lennartson agreed it was unlikely...

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