BirchBay watershed facing environmental decay

Published on Thu, Aug 9, 2007 by ara Nelson

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Birch Bay watershed facing environmental decay

By Tara Nelson

The health of the Terrell Creek may have improved, but the Birch Bay and Terrell Creek watershed is facing serious threats, according to a recent study released by several Whatcom County agencies.

The watershed, which covers more than 27 square miles and is home to more than 7,000 people, has experienced a decline in dissolved oxygen levels, higher water temperatures and increases in fecal coliform levels since 2004, said Gerald Larson, a co-chair of the Birch Bay Watershed Area Resource Management committee, who participated in the study. Other problems include increased flooding, erosion and loss of aquatic habitat as a result of streambed alterations that come with increased growth and development in the region.

Higher water temperatures can cause stress or death in salmon and is often caused by the removal of shade-creating vegetation, or naturally occurring deep pools when stream habitat is altered.

Excess nutrients such as fecal coliform or other nitrogen-rich materials can trigger algae blooms, which lead to low dissolved oxygen levels and higher water temperatures.

Leaking septic systems, lawn fertilizers, livestock manure and domestic pet waste are a frequent source of excess nutrients, the report said.

Larson said the real evidence of non-point source pollution appears in the fall, after the first rains “wash all of the sins of the summer into the bay.”

“The real evidence we haven’t made any improvements is to just look at the tide flats,” he said. “When I was young, they were all sand. Now they’re all green from algae. That’s a signal the bay is getting more nutrients than it should.”

Larson, however, said the biggest problem is the “passive resistance” of watershed residents.

“Our biggest problem is having people tell you they want to protect the bay but they won’t change their behavior,” he said. “When you talk to people, they say they don’t think they’re polluting the bay, but the bay is still being polluted. We have to look at what we’re doing – even the small things.”

That could include reducing the use of fertilizers and picking up after dogs or other animals, he said.

The report is the result of a four-year cumulative effort between the Marine Resources Committee, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and the Nooksack Recovery Team of Whatcom County, Larson said.

The full report is available at the Blaine Visitor Center downtown or at various Birch Bay businesses. It can also be viewed online at