Samish closure

The Samish River, as seen from the Thomas Road bridge looking east, flows into Samish Bay.

Samish Bay has again failed the state evaluation for a shellfish harvest upgrade because of bacterial pollution in the Samish River.

Pollution in the river exceeded state standards Tuesday following rain that brought a record-setting river flow that day, Skagit County Water Quality Analyst Rick Haley said.

The incident is the second time since the evaluation began in March that shellfish harvest in the bay has been closed due to pollution.

The state Department of Health evaluates the Samish watershed each year March through June. If there is no more than one pollution incident during that time, the bay could be considered for an upgrade.

An upgrade would signify that the watershed is clean enough to ensure less rain-related pollution incidents. Because pollution has been a recurring problem in the Samish River and Samish Bay for several years, the bay is closed to shellfish harvest as a precaution when the river reaches a certain flow.

An upgrade would eliminate those precautionary closures, which would benefit the shellfish growers in the bay.

Failing to achieve an upgrade this year is disappointing for shellfish growers in the bay, who have already faced about five weeks worth of harvest closures in 2018 as a result of pollution and the precautionary river flow threshold, according to the Department of Health.

"It's hard not to get discouraged when you look at all the efforts to improve water quality out there," said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, one of several shellfish growing companies that operate in the bay.

The problem in the Samish watershed is bacterial pollution from human and animal waste, largely from faulty septic systems and mismanaged livestock manure. That pollution can cause illness for shellfish consumers who eat oysters raw.

Skagit County and several partners have been working since 2009 to find and fix sources of pollution in the watershed through an effort called the Clean Samish Initiative.

Skagit County Pollution Identification and Correction Coordinator Karen DuBose said that while dozens of septic systems have been repaired and dozens of livestock owners have done fencing and manure management projects, sources of human sewage and livestock manure remain scattered throughout the watershed.

Crush the sewage-detecting dog confirmed pollution in some areas in March, and DuBose said manure issues are visible in other areas.

"We still see a lot of poor pasture management out on the landscape — overgrazed pastures, muddy pastures, animals out in pastures too early in spring, and manure not being regularly collected," she said. 

Haley said ongoing water sampling shows much of the pollution appears to be coming from upstream of where the river crosses Highway 99.

"That tells us that there are still lots of sources to find upstream ... particularly in Friday Creek, Wear Creek and Swede Creek, which are areas we are looking closely at this year," DuBose said.

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

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