County program effective at reducing fecal coliform pollution

Kevin Gahan (left) of Seattle and Suzanne Barth of Langley, British Columbia, take their dogs Neo (white) and Jax for a stroll on the beach at Bay View State Park. Recent tests show that there is less fecal coliform bacteria in the water.

With less fecal coliform bacteria found this year at the Bay View State Park beach, Skagit County staff say their efforts to find and fix sources of pollution are working.

During past years, the beach along Padilla Bay has closed to swimming multiple times during the testing season — May to September — due to fecal coliform bacteria in the water, but this year it closed once.

County staff are saying the “dramatic water quality improvement” is thanks to a pollution identification and correction program used in the Bay View area over the past year.

“We’re super excited that less than a year of work has netted such a great turnaround in water quality. With continued work from the county in the watershed, we’re hoping for no swimming closures at all next year,” Skagit County Pollution Identification and Correction Coordinator Karen DuBose said.

Fecal coliform is a bacteria found within human and animal feces. Its presence suggests other bacteria that could make people sick may be in the water.

The bacteria has been an ongoing problem in the Padilla Bay watershed and the neighboring Samish Bay watershed.

The pollution identification and correction program, called PIC, focuses on finding and fixing sources of the pollution, primarily from septic systems and livestock.

The PIC program was first used in Skagit County to combat the pollution in the Samish Bay watershed and was more recently introduced in the Padilla Bay watershed.

County staff say progress is being in the entire Padilla Bay and Samish Bay watersheds, and the success at Bay View is a testament to the PIC program’s effectiveness.

Over the past year, the county brought septic system inspection compliance in the Bay View area from about 30 percent to 92 percent, DuBose said.

The county discovered seven septic systems that weren’t functioning properly and are now being repaired, and put 12 agricultural property owners in contact with the Skagit Conservation District to ensure they don’t contribute to the pollution.

A high concentration of the bacteria was found at the beach once during this testing season.

It was detected the week of May 26 in water samples collected through the BEACH — Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication and Health — Program coordinated by the state Department of Health and state Department of Ecology.

BEACH Program volunteers take samples from select beaches in the state once a week, typically Memorial Day to Labor Day, in an effort to prevent swimmers and recreational shellfish harvesters from getting sick.

“We did have a big improvement in water quality at Bay View this year, so it was pretty cool,” said Debby Sargeant, who was the BEACH Program manager for the past several years.

DuBose said Bay View water quality improved quickly because the county was able to hone in on a specific neighborhood to look for sources of pollution.

“We focused on the downtown Bay View area, knowing we had problems at the beach and it had to have something to do with septic systems in the area,” DuBose said. “We’re not declaring victory. We still have a lot of work to do in the greater Padilla Bay watershed.”

More work also remains to be done in the Samish Bay watershed, where 4,000 acres of shellfish beds get closed to harvest as a precaution when the Samish River reaches a certain flow.

The bay was closed to harvest last week after a record high water flow in the Samish River following heavy rains.

Water samples confirmed bacteria was above state limits, extending the closure until Monday evening, when water samples came back clean, according to the Department of Health.

Skagit County Water Quality Analyst Rick Haley said the bacteria reached about nine times the state limit of 4.7 trillion units of bacteria entering the bay per day.

“This was a classic first flush after it hadn’t rained for a long time,” he said.

Prior to last week, the most recent shellfish harvest closure due to a high concentration of fecal coliform bacteria was April 4-7.

DuBose said while the county has been using the PIC program in the Samish Bay watershed for six years, the size of the watershed has made it challenging to pin down remaining sources of pollution.

The Samish Bay watershed is 123 square miles, while the Padilla Bay watershed is 36 square miles, DuBose said.

There are more than 4,000 septic systems in the Samish Bay watershed, compared to 1,050 in the Padilla Bay watershed and about 60 in the Bay View focus area.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199,

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