Study shows declining water quality

Published on Thu, Aug 14, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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Study shows declining water quality

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

The Department of Health (DoH) recently placed Birch Bay on its list of 20 threatened shellfish areas, and some in the community are wondering how this came to be, and what they can do to stop it.

According to the department�s early warning system, officials were able to determine that Birch Bay is experiencing a deterioration in water quality, and high levels of fecal coliform in its waters. Fecal coliform comes from human and animal feces and can indicate the presence of other bacteria or viruses.

Bob Woolrich, of the DoH�s shellfish programs said the department tests the waters through stations in various bay locations. �We have water sampling stations throughout Birch Bay. A couple of stations have gotten worse over time. And if the trend continues, they can no longer harvest,� he said. �Analysis is done once a year.�

According to July 2003 DOH records, there are a total of 10 stations in Birch Bay tested by the health department. Eight of these stations are listed as being areas of low concern, one is of relative concern, and the other is threatened. None of these stations are ranked as most threatened.

Studies over a two-year timeframe, indicate that two of these 10 stations have been listed as improving and seven are staying the same, according to the DOH. Only one station, located across from Birch Bay State Park, is getting worse.

�All stations in the approved portion of the growing area pass the water quality standard,� the report said. �Birch Bay meets standards but threatened with a downgrade in classification.�

The report states �the standard for approved shellfish growing waters is a fecal coliform geometric mean estimate of the 90th percentile not greater than 43 organisms/100ml for 30 samples tested.�

According to Roger Brown, general manager of the Birch Bay Water and Sewer District (BBWSD), one station has an estimated 90th percentile of 22, and another has an estimate of 20.

�These two stations are barely 50 percent of threshold standard of 43,� Brown said, adding the DOH�s numerical definition of a �threatened� classification is 90th percentile of between 30-43 organisms/100ml. �The data for the two stations of concern are significantly below that range.�

However, according to the report, Birch Bay is classified as threatened because recent results show a consistent source of pollution, specifically the last two testing cycles.

Steve Hovde, BBWSD�s wastewater manager, said the two sampling stations with elevated fecal coliform numbers are located in the center of Birch Bay, a significant distance from the Point Whitehorn outfall.

�The report from the DOH does not indicate that the Birch Bay shellfish harvesting area is on the verge of not meeting water quality standards because of high fecal coliform counts,� Hovde said.

He also noted that the beach near the Point Whitehorn outfall of the district�s wastewater treatment plant was reclassified from �closed� to �open� for the recreational harvest of shellfish in March of 2001.

The BBWSD was recently awarded, for the fourth time, with the outstanding wastewater treatment plant for meeting the grade of 100 percent compliance with the conditions stipulated in the district�s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Birch Bay is one of only four facilities statewide to receive this award, Hovde added.

Birch Bay state park manager Ted Morris said he was unaware of the bay�s status. �I didn�t know about the fecal coliform levels. I just found out last month (about the threatened status),� he said, adding most visitors are also unaware.

The Bay�s threatened status could affect future visits, especially if Birch Bay was prohibited to shellfishing, as Drayton Harbor currently is. �Let�s not let this get like Blaine,� he said.

When asked what people can do to ensure that Birch Bay�s threatened status does not elevate to prohibited, Woolrich said the community can do two things: self examination and getting involved.

�If people have livestock or other animals, they should be sure to keep waste out of streams,� he said. �Another way is getting involved. People can support programs that look into pollution.�

Alan Friedlob, founder of Smart Growth Birch Bay, said the community needs to move toward developing and introducing a land use ordinance that recognizes the uniqueness of the Birch Bay watershed.

�This is Whatcom County�s only saltwater beach recreational area,� he said. �This data represents a red flag regarding the importance of the need to regulate low-impact development.�

By adopting low-impact development, he said, storm water run-off will be reduced, a significant contributor to water quality, which ultimately affects shellfishing.

For more information, contact the Department of Health at 676-6720 or Whatcom Water Resource at 676-6876.

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