In an effort to expedite a shellfish harvest upgrade for Samish Bay, Clean Samish Initiative partners have launched a new 90-day plan with ambitious goals for the watershed.

“Our goal is to break those barriers that keep us moving slowly,” Skagit County Pollution Identification and Correction Coordinator Karen DuBose said.

“We may not have an exact plan, but our goal is to get a rough draft as best as we can with our experience and then get on the ground as fast as possible and see how it goes, and then re-evaluate. Every week we’re re-evaluating,” she said.

The Samish River and Samish Bay have exceeded state water quality standards for fecal coliform bacteria intermittently for years. The amount of bacterial pollution found in water samples seems to correspond with particularly heavy rainfall, which result in high stream flows.

The initiative is a partnership of more than 20 organizations in the region that are working with landowners and residents to reduce pollution. The partnership formed in 2009 in response to a spike in bacteria levels that gained statewide attention in 2008.

While the initiative team has found and addressed numerous sources of the bacteria, pollution still results in several shellfish harvest closures for Samish Bay growers each year.

“We’ve made a lot of great progress with the Clean Samish Initiative. Bacteria levels in the river are way down, but it boils down to we’re still not finding and eliminating enough fecal coliform sources in order to reach our goal of clean water so that we can eat from it and we can play in it without fear of getting sick,” DuBose told Skagit County commissioners last week.

Due to high river flows Sunday, Samish Bay was closed to shellfish harvest. The Office of Shellfish and Water Protection expects water sampling results Tuesday afternoon, according to Scott Berbells, state Department of Health growing section supervisor.

If bacteria levels are high, the bay will remain closed.

Clean Samish Initiative partners hope to achieve an upgrade for Samish Bay from the state’s characterization as conditionally approved to approved.

Under conditionally approved regulations, harvest is closed whenever river flow exceeds a certain threshold, whether bacteria is confirmed present or not. Under approved status, the bay is only closed if bacteria is actually found in water samples.

The county and other initiative partners launched a “90 Days to Clean Water” campaign this month in coordination with the state Department of Health’s annual water quality evaluation. The evaluation runs March through June and allows the state to consider upgrading the status of the bay if no more than one confirmed bacterial pollution closure occurs.

“The idea in this plan was to narrow down what we think the problems are and come up with a targeted plan to see if we can upgrade the Samish Bay shellfish beds at the end of the 90-day period, which started (last) Sunday,” Public Works Director Dan Berentson told the commissioners.

The Governor’s Office has been closely involved with the initiative to clean the Samish, starting under former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s leadership and continuing under Gov. Jay Inslee.

“The effort in the Samish to improve water quality is really important to the governor and we’ve been excited to partner with Skagit County and Skagit Conservation District in putting in place the new 90-day plan,” said Julie Horowitz, shellfish policy adviser for the Governor’s Office.

The 90-day plan will help initiative partners “hone in on the remaining challenges” to reach the end-goal of reopening Samish Bay, she said.

“I think the team that’s doing it is really amazing, and a great partnership between state and local agencies and organizations, along with farmers and shellfish growers,” Horowitz said.

Initiative partners emphasize the community plays an important role in the effort.

Fecal coliform bacteria is an indicator that human or animal feces is present. It can cause diseases such as gastroenteritis, ear infections, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis A and cholera, according to Skagit County. Sources can include leaking septic systems, manure and pet waste.

DuBose said the clean Samish partnership is not pointing fingers at any particular land use in the watershed as the culprit. Every property is a potential contributor.

For example, someone might have dog poop all over their yard but they don’t think about it because it’s next to a ditch, not near the creek, she said. Or it could be a household with a few goats or horses.

“Just because you’re not next to the creek doesn’t mean you’re not having an impact. It’s going to take everybody working together on this to solve the problem because we all live here,” DuBose said.

After reviewing data from the last several years, the group narrowed down three major focus areas for the 90-day period: Friday Creek, Thomas Creek and the Samish River at Chuckanut Drive in Allen.

Between volunteers, Samish Indian Nation and county staff, water quality sampling in those areas will be doubled during the evaluation period.

Storm Team volunteers coordinated with the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Skagit Conservation District to visit new monitoring stations in Friday Creek weekly during the next three months, Conservation District Outreach Coordinator Kristi Carpenter said. A group of volunteers made their first round of sampling under the 90-day plan on March 6.

“The Clean Samish Initiative has been going on for a while and one of the issues is that when we get a lot of rain we get a big flush of fecal coliform going down the river,” County Commissioner Ron Wesen said. “The problem is the numbers aren’t constantly high; they go up and down.

“We need everybody to work together and we’ve got this 90-day window when the Department of Health is looking at us,” he said.

Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said he encourages area residents to cooperate with the regulatory agencies involved in the Clean Samish effort because the pollution issue will not be ignored.

The county sent outreach letters to 1,650 homes in the basin last week.

A large hurdle for cleaning the Samish River is that resident cooperation is key. While many resources are available to residents, they come from a variety of sources and may not be easy to find, DuBose said.

One of the long-term goals initiative partners hope to achieve this year is establishing a main contact through the Conservation District for landowners seeking assistance.

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— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199,, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH,

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