COLUMNIST: Joe Leary, a slough of problems
A cow roams near an unfenced section of Joe Leary Slough.


The good news is we have 100 feet of waterfront property. My husband and I could both imagine a little white gazebo down by the water.

The bad news is we live on the Joe Leary Slough.

When we first saw the slough, we figured something had stirred up the bottom and didn’t think much more about the water’s reddish, cloudy appearance.

Later on, it was clear that what we saw was what we got: rusty, dirty water with a lot of fecal coliform and low levels of dissolved oxygen. The fecal count meant we had to tell our 13 grandchildren to keep out of the water. The low oxygen meant the only fish that could survive in the slough were sticklebacks. They’re not good eating unless you’re a heron.

Joe Leary starts east of Interstate 5 and south of Cook Road. It slogs its way through miles of fields north of Josh Wilson, then spills its contents into Padilla Bay north of Bay View. Some farmers explained to me the slough has always been considered an agricultural drainage ditch, so the cleanliness of the water is not their major concern. That’s why some farmers are content with a single-wire “hot” fence right at the very edge of the bank — not to protect water quality, but to ensure that calves wouldn’t fall in and drown.

This little slough, with the polluted sludge it carries and its low levels of oxygen, has devastated juvenile salmon that once lived at the mouth of the slough in Padilla Bay, and any shellfish that manage to still survive there.

The bay is part of Puget Sound, which belongs to all of us. We need to step up to the plate and take responsibility for these waters. This place we live is special, and it’s up to us to keep it that way.

I did much research on Joe Leary last year, and learned the rusty color is from iron in the ground water. Can’t do anything about that. And it didn’t take rocket science to figure out that most of the fecal coliform comes from cattle poop. The banks of Joe Leary have few homes with septics, a few ducks and little wildlife. A simple process of elimination points to livestock, mainly cows.

We do have a bunch of those out here. One farmer has hundreds of them. In fact, one day not long ago, I spotted 200 or 300 cows gathered on the banks of the Joe Leary for some kind of bovine event. The likelihood of a poopless gathering of that many cows was pretty slim.

The county’s main water quality guy takes regular samples from the slough, at D’Arcy Road. I have studied the last five years of data from those samples. Many are so high they’re literally off the chart: 3,500 and 9,000 are the most memorable numbers on a scale in which 100 is the acceptable limit.

There is no “Clean Joe Leary Initiative” in our county, commensurate with the “Clean Samish Initiative” program in place for the Samish River. Maybe the name is too long for a catchy acronym. Or maybe the county, state or even the feds don’t have the resources.

It’s too bad. For years Joe Leary has been delivering a deadly message to everything that has ever tried to live at the point where it empties into Padilla Bay. It doesn’t seem that will change any time soon.

As a model of what could be done, we were going to plant hedgerows along our 100 feet of waterfront, using the county’s nifty Natural Resource Stewardship Program. The county would buy the plants and even pay us to care for them. Our local berry farmer offered to mow down our canary grass to give the little guys a chance to get a foothold. But the county’s multi-page legal document with all that fine print about easements scared us. So no pretty hedgerows for us. At least not that way.

Who needs a silly gazebo anyway? Maybe we should just get a couple of cows. How about alpacas? They’re much cuter.

Dorothy Haase lives in Bow with 10 rabbits, a magical cat and “The Husband.” She writes, cooks, entertains, crabs, fishes and thinks the best stories are the ones told by real people. She believes people can have cleaner water and thriving farms at the same time. Reach her at

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