Mixed results for Skagit water quality

Several channels that flow into Padilla Bay pass through farmland first. Little Indian Slough flows under Bay View-Edison Road at the south end of the Padilla Bay Dike Trail. Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald

Since October 2003, Skagit County employees have visited streams that trickle through the Skagit, Samish and Padilla watersheds every other week to collect water samples.

The samples document fecal coliform bacteria, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels, as well as phosphorous and nitrogen four times a year. The results reflect the health of local waters for fish, shellfish and recreation.

The data helps alert the county to significant problems — like the spike in fecal coliform pollution that was discovered in 2008 and led to the development of the Clean Samish Initiative — and to monitor progress.

“It shows us where we are in protecting our water resources — or not. It shows us where we need to do better; it shows us where our successes have been,” Skagit County water quality specialist Rick Haley said.

On Wednesday, Skagit County Public Works’ Natural Resources Division released the 2012 Skagit County Water Quality Monitoring Program Annual Report, which summarizes findings since the start of the program through the October 2011 to September 2012 cycle.

As in years past, the results are a mixed bag.

The bad news is many of the streams do not meet state water quality standards and the causes, whether natural or human-related, are inconclusive.

Most of the poor results are found in the Samish Basin and tributaries to the Skagit River, while the Skagit River itself tends to meet water quality standards more often than not, according to the report.

“We’ve learned from doing all this monitoring, basically every water course is its own entity, and it’s hard to make generalizations,” Haley said.

Water samples are collected at 40 stations, from Hamilton along the Skagit River west toward Samish and Padilla bays.

The program was established to help determine if the Skagit County Critical Areas Ordinance for Ongoing Agriculture is sufficient to protect aquatic resources.

Instead of requiring buffers or setbacks from water bodies as required in many Critical Areas Ordinances, Skagit County decided to require landowners in agricultural zones to use best-management practices to “do no harm” to streams that cut through farmland, Haley said.

Most sampling stations are in agricultural areas, but some are outside for comparison samples.

To date, long-term analysis shows positive and negative trends with no distinct pattern between agricultural and non-agricultural areas.

But the program does help identify problem areas in the county, steering cleanup efforts to where they are needed most.

The Clean Samish Initiative was formed following a startling 2008 sample with fecal coliform bacteria 170 times the state standard. The initiative is a partnership of more than 20 federal, state, county, tribal, nonprofit and private organizations working to identify and reduce sources of pollution, including livestock and septic systems.

Through the initiative the county collects water samples during rain events and uses additional data collected by the Skagit Stream Team and Skagit Storm Team volunteer groups.

The Skagit Conservation District and Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve coordinate the volunteer groups. The stream team monitors tributaries of the Samish every two weeks. The storm team responds during rain events, primarily at sites the county does not test, Padilla Bay estuary educator Susan Wood said.

The additional monitoring has charted a drop in fecal coliform that’s now five to 10 times lower during heavy rain. However, it still exceeds state standards and results in several commercial shellfish harvest closures each year.

Another cleanup project is on the horizon for the county in the Padilla Bay watershed, which is also subject to fecal coliform pollution. Skagit County has secured funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health for the project, Haley said.

Like the Clean Samish Initiative, it will rely heavily on volunteer sampling and focus on pinpointing and fixing sources of pollution.

A volunteer storm team already collects samples in the Padilla watershed, which will transition well into aiding the new county project, Wood said.

Although there is no commercial shellfish harvest in Padilla Bay, fecal coliform pollution has resulted in closures for recreational shellfish harvest and swimming at Bay View State Park over the years. The park’s beach is permanently closed to shellfish harvest until pollution sources are identified, corrected and water quality improves significantly, said Scott Berbells, state Department of Health Office of Shellfish and Water Protection growing areas supervisor.

A start date has not been set for the county’s Padilla Bay project, but Haley said a public meeting will be organized to introduce the community to the project.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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