Birch Bay's water quality unaffected by pungent purple algae

Published on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 by Steve Guntli

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While the algae build-up and occasional rotten odors wafting off the waters of Birch Bay have some citizens concerned, county representatives claim that water in the bay is up to snuff. 

According to officials from the Whatcom County public works department, the water in Birch Bay is “clean and meets state health standards.” The bay remains safe for wading, swimming and water sports. The announcement comes as a result of tests conducted after the public works department and the Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management (BBWARM) district received complaints from locals about the buildup of algae and an unpleasant sulfur smell. 

“We get a lot of complaints that it’s stinky and unpleasant from people who live near the Cottonwood neighborhood,” said Ingrid Enschede, program specialist with Whatcom County Public Works stormwater division. 

Enschede said locals have reported increased growth of the purple algae over the last five years, but there is currently no research at a scientific or collegiate level to determine how much the growth has increased or what’s causing it. It is known that the algae develop as a result of heat and certain nutrients found on the bay floor. 

As for the smell, it is a result of hydrogen sulfide gas, which is produced from decomposing plants. The hydrogen sulfide is not inherently harmful to humans, but those with sensitivity to the smell may experience headaches and mild nausea. 

The algae bloom is a purely seasonal affliction, and Enschede estimates it will be gone by mid to late August.  

“We don’t want anyone to be alarmed,” Enschede said. “It’s inconvenient, it’s stinky, but as far as we know there are no health risks for coming in contact with the algae. Just use common sense, wash your hands and shoes if you touch any of it.”

The Whatcom County Health Department collects water samples from Birch Bay every two weeks from Memorial Day to Labor Day to monitor levels of potentially harmful bacteria. The county also monitors for harmful levels of biotoxins in the area’s shellfish. Currently, all Whatcom County beaches are closed for shellfish harvesting, due to abnormal levels of PSP and DSP biotoxins. 

Some freshwater inlets have warranted concerns about their water quality. Bacteria levels in Terrell Creek frequently exceed the state standards. Between January 31 and June 27 of this year, manure effluent from upstream led to the closure of a beach near the mouth of the creek. The area within 670 yards of the creek’s mouth has also been subject to a permanent shellfish harvesting shutdown since 2008, and will remain in effect until the bacteria levels in the creek are reduced. 

Residents can help keep water quality levels in check by picking up pet waste and garbage, limiting the use of fertilizer and managing their septic systems. 

For additional information, visit bbwarm.whatcomcounty.org