By Alex Meacham
— Padilla Bay is polluted by fecal coliform bacteria. It makes people sick, it concentrates in shellfish and, as Rick Haley, a recently retired Skagit County water quality analyst puts it, “Fecal coliform in the water means you got s**t in the water and that’s not okay.”
The Washington Department of Ecology has been on the case since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when four local tributaries were put on a list of impaired water sources. Locating and fixing large sources of fecal pollution coming from dairies and feedlots significantly reduced pollution, but finding and fixing remaining sources has become like “herding cats,” said Haley.
Fecal coliform bacteria are microscopic organisms in the intestines of most warm-blooded animals such as cattle, humans and mice, and are known as “thermotolerant coliform,” said Karen DuBose, public information contact for Skagit County’s Clean Water Program. These bacteria include culprits like forms of E. coli and other pathogens that can make people sick, she noted.
In water, they are bad, Haley said. Playing water sports in contaminated water has led to suspected illness from fecal coliform. Eating shellfish contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria causes illness. And, as Haley pointed out, it means that somewhere upstream or nearby, there’s poop in the water.
The Padilla Bay Freshwater Tributary Fecal Coliform Total Maximal Daily Load (TMDL) Report is due to be submitted by Ecology to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the end of this year and lists fecal coliform bacteria sources and strategies for cleanup. Kevin Jackman, water quality analyst at Skagit County’s Clean Water Program, said that the 139-page TMDL Report included samples from a few sites that the county had not yet sampled.
According to the TMDL Report, its goal is to ensure that the Padilla Bay freshwater tributaries attain Washington state water quality standards for fecal coliform. The report presents data, accumulated by county, community and state resources, summarized in “a study to determine the areas of highest concern” and “actions and implementing strategies required to clean up the watershed.”
Written public comment on the report is being accepted until Nov. 22.
Padilla waterways exceed Clean Water limits
The four waterways in the TMDL Report were originally listed in the “303(d)” list, a federal database of waterways that don’t meet standards under the Clean Water Act. This list is updated every two years, and waterways are prioritized to be moved off the list, and onto a TMDL report.
Once a report has been approved by the EPA, the polluted waterways are tracked until they’re restored, but remain off the 303(d) list.
In this year’s report, all 12 sites annually sampled along Joe Leary Slough exceeded water quality standards by a range of 12%-77%. How much the water quality standards are exceeded varies by site and stream, but all four waterways sampled in the Padilla Bay drainage exceeded state fecal coliform water quality standards.
Scott Bohling at Ecology is one of the authors of the report. He said the TMDL Report ideally will be useful to the county’s Clean Water Program in finding focus areas and funding support. The county’s Jackman said that finding sources of fecal coliform is triage because, with limited time and budget, the best they can do is to make the biggest difference they can.
A TMDL report on a watershed allows application tor state and federal grant funding, Bohling said. He also said a TMDL report relies on voluntary implementation rather than permitting or actions at the state level.
Pete Haase, a long-time environmental activist who has lived in the watershed for 20 years and worked with many local groups, is not certain that the plan does enough. He said that it’s been extremely frustrating knowing that the local waters are being polluted although he acknowledged that things are getting a little better.
An issue Haase has with the TMDL Report is that it is entirely focused on the eastern side of Padilla Bay, and does not include Guemes Island, Hat Island and March Point (site of the Marathon-Anacortes Refinery) on the western side.
Bohling said that these were not included because, while there are bacteria within the bay, the areas where they exist tend to be fairly localized and the majority of the bay does meet water quality standards.
Haase also noted that the South Fork of Joe Leary Slough, one of four tributaries mentioned in the TMDL Report, isn’t acknowledged despite being a potential pollution source during the rainy season. These four sloughs, as well as a number of smaller unnamed streams, cover about 40 square miles around Bay View, Bow, Burlington and La Conner. They all eventually flow to Padilla Bay.
Bohling said that aerial photographs of the areas surrounding the waterways are not included in the TMDL Report for privacy reasons but will be used by Ecology when working with local partners like Skagit County and the Skagit Conservation District to improve water quality and jumpstart additional action.
Six sources of fecal pollution
Two volunteer sampling teams, the Stream Team and the Storm Team, along with Skagit County and Skagit Conservation District staff sample dozens of sites throughout the Padilla Bay watershed. The Storm Team works during rainstorms when fecal coliform bacteria counts can be highest, because poop is washed off fields and into streams that feed the bay.
The TMDL Report lists six major sources of fecal coliform bacteria:
- residential and business septic systems
- human sources such as hikers or campers
- pet waste
- waterfowl and other wildlife.
Haley, however, doesn’t think waterfowl and small animals contribute as much as humans and livestock.
The Skagit County Critical Areas Ordinance requires that livestock be kept out of streams. Cattle, however, aren’t the only source of fecal coliform. Humans are a source as well. In Bayview, a small town overlooking Padilla Bay, homeowners are required to have their septic systems checked regularly and repair them if they are not working properly. Haase, for one, believes septic failures are less of an issue than improper livestock manure management.
Many of the fecal coliform bacteria sources are small and dispersed which makes finding a solution harder. The monitoring data can vary wildly, both day-to-day and month-to-month. There is no one pasture or stormwater pipe or septic drain field causing the problems with fecal coliform bacteria in Padilla Bay.
In previous years, Skagit County employed Crush — nicknamed ‘the Wonderdog’ — who could find sources of sewage by smelling. Crush would sniff samples of sewage brought from around the region and sit next to samples that were contaminated with bacteria. That gave county workers a better idea of where to look, and they took her to those sites to find where the poop is entering the streams.
Haley said that the test in use now is a bit of a blunt instrument because less dangerous bacteria can be misidentified as fecal coliform bacteria.
Dilution also complicates data collection, he noted. When it rains, poop can be washed off fields and roads with extra water, and make bacteria harder to detect and harder to distinguish between fecal sources. It might be a mouse next to the sampling site or a leaking septic system up the road. Both situations make it hard to tell whether a problem exists or how severe it is.
Resistance to a fix
Haley said that while there have been cases of organized resistance to pollution controls in the past, resistance most recently has been from individuals not wanting to be bothered. Haase said that “asking people to voluntarily control pollution doesn’t work.”
DuBose said that farmers are feeling a lot of stress right now from the pandemic and low milk prices, that the TMDL report is “just one more thing on top of a huge pile of challenges.” According to DuBose, resources for help with fecal coliform are plentiful, but that they are not easy for nonspecialists to find, which is part of why DuBose started the PoopSmart awareness campaign, which helps to connect people with those resources.
According to the TMDL report, “Full implementation of this TMDL requires the participation of many different groups to work with landowners. The wide variety of water cleanup needs include roles for federal, state, and local governments as well as nonprofits and special interest groups. Continued funding of ongoing programs is needed as well as additional grant and special project funds to ensure BMPs (Best Management Practices) are installed to address the full range of potential pollution sources.”
Fecal coliform bacteria pollution won’t go away by itself in the waters that flow to Padilla Bay. At least, according to Jackman, the TMDL report will bring all the groups working on fecal coliform bacteria around Padilla Bay onto the same page, and the report can help them to work together better.
Alex Meacham is a recent Western Washington University graduate with a degree in environmental journalism. He spends his free time playing with his dog and enjoys craft beer, cooking and videography. See more of his work at alexmeacham.net.