Public outreach plan in progress to improve Birch Bay water quality

Published on Wed, May 2, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Conservation officials are in the middle of a public outreach campaign they hope will improve water quality in the Terrell Creek and Cottonwood Beach areas of Birch Bay.

In 2008, the state department of health closed a 670-yard radius around the mouth of Terrell Creek to commercial shellfish harvesting and issued a recommendation against recreational harvesting at the site. The closure was enacted due to unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria at mouth of the creek.

By state law, Whatcom County Council is required to establish a shellfish protection district and adopt a shellfish protection program within 180 days of such a closure. The Birch Bay Shellfish Protection District was formed in 2009 to address water quality issues and its effects on shellfish.

The advisory committee for the protection district met last month and was briefed on two main projects intended to improve water quality in the Birch Bay watershed – a water quality monitoring program for stormwater and other non-marine water sources and a public outreach campaign to teach local homeowners what they can do to improve water quality.

Erika Stroebel, a senior planner in Whatcom County’s marine resources division, is organizing the water quality monitoring program. County staff and volunteers have been taking water samples from different drainage ditches, streams and outfalls in the Birch Bay watershed since January 2010 and discovered a number of trouble spots with exceedingly high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Stroebel cannot yet pinpoint exact sources of the bacteria at specific monitoring sites, but said common sources include waste from humans, pets and livestock.

“We think it’s probably a lot of things,” Stroebel said. “It’s going to take different types of actions to track down sources.”

One particularly bad spot in the watershed is referred to as BB8 in a Birch Bay watershed water quality progress report for the second half of 2011. BB8 is on Birch Bay Drive and is commonly referred to as the Cottonwood Beach drainage area.

The report lists the BB8 site as the worst offender in water quality of the 15 Birch Bay coastal drainage monitoring sites. A test performed last July at the BB8 site found fecal coliform bacteria levels four times higher than the next highest site and more than 1,000 times higher than state health standards. These levels have prompted further scrutiny of the site, which consists of a small creek running at roughly a 45 degree angle.

“This number is just so far ahead of the standards that it stands out,” Stroebel said.

The Whatcom Conservation District has contracted with Rachel Vasak, the executive director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, to organize a public outreach campaign. The conservation district secured a $772,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010 for the work, and Vasak gave an update on the outreach program at the April 18 Birch Bay Shellfish Protection District meeting.

Vasak said she has been working for the past year interviewing homeowners in the area to determine the best way to present information on improving water quality. She is producing outreach material, such as informational pamphlets, based on this social marketing research. Vasak believes these methods will work, and that most homeowners want to do the right thing but may not know how to do it.

“The goal is to get a grassroots group of people who will hopefully begin to influence their neighbors,” conservation district director George Boggs said.

Vasak said she’s a proponent of reaching out to people who want to change and want to know how to change, as opposed to threatening property owners with fines or other regulatory actions.

Looking toward the future, Vasak thinks these efforts will make a difference in water quality in five years. By 2014, Vasak plans to have completed 300 farm and home visits and have helped 30 homeowners to improve water quality, such as regular septic system inspections.

On the water quality monitoring side, Stroebel will have a comprehensive water quality report ready by July or August of this year. She says the report will provide an accurate description of the problems as well as potential solutions.

Whatcom County secured a $75,000 EPA grant, with a $26,000 county match, for the water quality monitoring work. So far $49,000 of the grant has been spent.