Efforts to clean up Puget Sound get a new push
Nearly every time heavy rain falls in north Puget Sound, high levels of fecal bacteria flow into Samish Bay, disrupting work at Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest shellfish producer in the United States.
The bay has been choked by many sources, including animal and human waste, broken septic tanks and farmland runoff. It’s been so bad the last two years that the state Department of Health has closed the bay to shellfish harvesting for more than 100 days.
“We lost a market opportunity, and there’s an erosion of consumer confidence,” said company spokesman Bill Dewey, who also owns a clam farm in the bay. “And you still have to keep the lights on. The bills don’t stop coming.”
With patience running thin, state officials have responded with an ambitious cleanup campaign for Samish Bay and all of Puget Sound, the nation’s second-largest estuary, behind Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast.
They’ve stepped up inspections, in some cases going door-to-door to track down who’s contributing to the pollution. In Skagit County, anti-pollution workers are even using DNA testing to pinpoint whether waste is coming from humans or animals.
Much of the pressure for action has come from the top. Earlier this year, the state downgraded the health status of 4,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds in Samish Bay, angering Gov. Chris Gregoire. She declared that cleanup efforts had failed and ordered a turnaround by September 2012.
“We’re not going to flush – literally flush – 4,000 acres down the drain of prime shellfish-growing area,” Gregoire said.
Cleanup efforts are nothing new on Puget Sound. But some say there’s a new urgency this year, driven at least partly by the governor’s intervention.
Dewey said he was “exceptionally pleased” with Gregoire’s action, adding that it brought more resources and better coordination to cleanup efforts as officials responded quickly to the state’s top executive.
“She was not a happy camper,” he said.
In what state officials are calling an unprecedented effort, more than 20 organizations have come together in an attempt to clean up Samish Bay by the governor’s deadline.
In May, the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency created four years ago to lead cleanup efforts, released a 10-point plan for the bay. Among other things, it calls for stepped-up inspections, portable restrooms for recreationists, more fencing and more education of dairy farmers and other landowners.
Dewey said the work at Samish Bay could go a long way in determining whether similar efforts would pay off elsewhere in the Sound.
“What’s at stake is whether we’re going to be able to clean up the rest of Puget Sound,” he said. “Samish Bay is pretty much a classic rural watershed. There isn’t any urban center.
We’re talking about runoff from pastures and failing septic systems and things that are more problematic in these rural areas. If we can’t do it in the Samish, then we’ve got a lot of other areas in the Puget Sound where we’re in trouble.”
Among the goals the Puget Sound Partnership hopes to achieve by 2020: Poisons would be reduced enough to allow for the safe consumption of fish, populations of Chinook and Pacific herring would be on the rise and all beaches would meet fecal bacteria standards so that people could swim, kayak and scuba dive without fear of illness.
Fecal bacteria levels have been a persistent problem on the Sound, not only on Samish Bay. Earlier this month, for example, Mason County health officials closed Twanoh State Park on Hood Canal to swimming after tests detected high levels in the water.
Gerry O’Keefe, the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, is trying to tamp down any expectations of a quick cleanup. Addressing reporters at Samish Bay last month, he said: “We know that we’re not going to be able to do this overnight. It’s taken us 150 years to get to where we are today. It’s going to take us awhile to get out of it.”
Instead of “pointing fingers at each other” to assign blame for the pollution, O’Keefe said everyone could contribute to the cleanup.
To that end, the partnership launched a campaign this summer urging the public to pick up after the 1.2 million dogs that live on the Sound. According to the partnership, the waste from the dogs is equal in volume to what would be produced by a city of 300,000 people.
The video has drawn criticism from some budget hawks, such as Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center who questioned whether a $27,000 video was the best way to accomplish the goal of getting people to pick up dog waste.
“In this economic climate, it raises a question of priorities,” Mercier told The Spokesman-Review last month. “It seems a questionable way of marketing the idea.”
The partnership and the state agencies that signed off on the video have defended it as a catchy way to tackle an increasing threat to the health of the Sound.
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6000