Susan Zemek, Puget Sound Partnership
Dan Berentson, Skagit County
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Samish Bay Cleanup Gains Added Push
TACOMA – The Puget Sound Partnership today released a 10-point action plan to clean up pollution caused by fecal bacteria in Samish Bay and its tributaries.
“Diligent work the past two years has produced important progress toward reducing fecal contamination in the Samish basin,” said Gerry O’Keefe, director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “Unfortunately, we have more work to do to ensure the water is clean year-round. This action plan ensures we will make the environmental improvements necessary for a healthy bay, and a healthy economy.”
The action plan will boost the efforts of the Clean Samish Initiative, a collaborative of agencies, tribes, landowners and others led by Skagit County to restore water quality in the Samish basin, by providing additional state and local staff, resources and funding.
One measure of the health of the Samish basin is the status of shellfish harvesting. The Department of Health recently downgraded the health status of 4,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds in Samish Bay because of pollution by fecal coliform, bacteria that come from animal and human waste. The bay has been closed to commercial harvesting about 30 times in the past three years because of high levels of fecal coliform.
In early April, based on data from Skagit County and the Department of Health, Governor Gregoire said the efforts to prevent pollution from septic tanks and animal waste on the Samish River were not enough. She directed state agencies to enhance support for these local efforts and specifically, for the Puget Sound Partnership to create and coordinate a targeted action plan to reverse the downgrade of shellfish beds in Samish Bay by September 2012.
“We have a serious pollution problem in the Samish watershed that continues to threaten our livelihood, recreation, shellfish beds and quality of life,” said Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen. “We have had a good program in place, but we welcome the extra help and added manpower to address this issue. With the combined effort of state and local agencies, we are determined to see the change we need to return our waters to a healthy, productive state.”
In late April, the Puget Sound Partnership convened representatives from other agencies, Skagit County, the Clean Samish Initiative (list of members), landowners and state legislators to begin writing the action plan. Ten actions resulted from that meeting that will improve coordination, compliance with clean water laws and accountability. The plan calls for increased inspections, more education of dairy and other landowners and assistance to farmers for livestock fencing and to landowners for portable restrooms for recreationists. Read the full plan.
To open the shellfish area by July 2012, the bay cannot be closed due to high fecal coliform levels more than once in 12 months, according to Department of Health rules. As part of this effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will conduct compliance inspections in the watershed this year to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act.
Bacteria get into the bay through a network of rivers and streams when rainfall washes animal waste off farms; when septic systems fail; when humans who are hunting, fishing and hiking go to the bathroom outdoors; and when boaters dump human waste into the water. The bacteria level is especially bad after heavy rainstorms, causing Samish Bay to be unsafe for shellfish harvesting and recreation. The Department of Health changed the classification of shellfish beds from Approved to Conditionally Approved, which requires most of the bay to be closed for five days when rainfall triggers the large increase in bacteria.
“Having both a healthy ecosystem and economy requires protecting and restoring thousands of acres of shellfish beds in Puget Sound,” O’Keefe said. “I appreciate the focused work of our many partners in the Clean Samish Initiative. They have been creative in getting federal funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies and local organizations. It will take a coordinated effort to advance local cleanup efforts by this time next year. We will monitor progress and make changes as needed until water in the Samish basin is given a clean bill of health.”