The rocky shoreline in front of Dale Skrivanich’s house is peppered with empty oyster shell clusters and other marine debris.
Her home overlooks Vaughn Bay, a relatively calm saltwater cove on the eastern shore of the Key Peninsula. The mouth of the bay spills into Case Inlet through a deep, narrow opening.
Under the bay’s seemingly serene surface a volatile environment lives.
Fluctuating bacteria levels over the years have prompted regulators to adopt a patchwork of shellfish harvesting restrictions.
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The most recent were issued Aug. 5 by the state Department of Health. That’s when 55 acres of commercial shellfish beds were downgraded from an “approved” status to “conditionally approved.”
The downgrade means Goodro Shellfish and Dabob Bay Oyster, the two commercial entities that harvest shellfish from the affected area, must first consult the rain gauge before digging.
If an inch or more of rain falls in a 24-hour period, the area is closed to harvesting for five days, according to state regulations.
It also triggered a state requirement that the county form a Shellfish Protection District to focus on cleaning up the water that feeds the bay.
“I wasn’t that surprised,” Skrivanich said of the downgrade.
“When you are a landowner on a bay or a lake or a creek, you just don’t own your land that you’re responsible for,” she said. “You are really responsible for your waterfront too.”
HEAVY RAINS ONE CAUSE
Like most saltwater estuaries in and around the peninsula, freshwater springs and runoff from waterfront and upland properties spill into Vaughn Bay.
Heavy rains can cause water to bypass vegetation that naturally filters pollutants. That can lead to high levels of bacteria in the saltwater.
That’s likely what happened in Vaughn Bay, according to Barbara Ann Smolko, Pierce County watershed coordinator.
When you are a landowner on a bay or a lake or a creek, you just don’t own your land that you’re responsible for. You are really responsible for your waterfront too.
Dale Skrivanich, Vaughn Bay waterfront property owner
State-collected water quality samples from the bay showed high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Common sources of the bacteria are animal waste — including livestock, dogs and Canada geese — and failing septic systems.
The state health department studied samples collected over a two-year period and determined the downgrade was necessary.
“We tend to see these as the canary in the coal mine thing,” Smolko said.
“You don’t feel comfortable telling property owners that it’s safe to have their grandkids wading in the water or playing in the water if there’s these millions of fecal coliform bacteria around,” she said.
When it learned about the pending downgrade last summer Pierce County hoped to find and fix the problem to prevent the downgrade.
“We’re fairly sure that a failing septic system was the problem on the north end,” of Vaughn Bay, said Ray Hanowell, Tacoma-Pierce County health department environmental health specialist.
You don’t feel comfortable telling property owners that it’s safe to have their grandkids wading in the water or playing in the water if there’s these millions of fecal coliform bacteria around.
Barbara Ann Smolko, Pierce County watershed coordinator
The county health department collects samples of freshwater that drains into the bay the same day the state tests the bay’s saltwater. The county can use its samples to pinpoint what area the bacteria is coming from, Hanowell said.
That’s how the health department identified the failing septic system. But despite its fix, subsequent state samples still showed elevated bacteria levels, Smolko said.
“There might be a couple other sources out there that we need to look at,” she said. “It can be tough because we may have people who have a little piece of the larger problem.”
HISTORY OF CLOSURES
Shellfish harvesting restrictions are not new in Vaughn. The shellfish industry historically harvested from the bay until the 1980s when public health concerns prompted closure of the beds.
The ban was partially lifted in 2009 when the state opened 103 acres of commercial shellfish beds to harvesting. Two years later, another 50 acres were opened.
To address the current problem, the county, its health department and Pierce Conservation District are working together to investigate all possible sources of contamination.
“We look at the storm system and the road system and the drainage system and the water that is coming off that and into the bay,” said Dan Wrye, Pierce County water quality and watersheds section supervisor.
Their work extends across the 3,412 acres that make up the Shellfish Protection District. The district, which includes public and private property, was drawn that large to account for the sources of all runoff that eventually ends up in the bay.
The proposed Vaughn Bay Shellfish Protection District encompasses 3,412 acres. There are 406 homes in the district and 19 saltwater tideland parcels.
Property owners already pay a county storm water fee so they won’t pay additional fees associated with a shellfish district, Smolko said.
The Pierce Conservation District has been working with farmers in Vaughn to reduce the amount of polluted water leaving their property. Farmers are defined as people with animals ranging in size from chickens to livestock.
There are 28 farms in the proposed district. Fourteen of those are working with the conservation district to make improvements, according to Sofia Gidlund, watershed program manager for Key Peninsula, Gig Harbor and the islands.
“We do a lot of examination of: What are improvements that could be done on this land?” Gidlund said. “We don’t force anyone to do anything we recommend. We recommend it and then we try to help the landowners fund it.”
Improvements include building paddocks to house animals during wet months, using bins to break down manure for future use as fertilizer, adding downspouts and gutters to barn structures to redirect rain, fencing off wetlands and sensitive areas and planting native plants along streams to filter pollutants.
Property owners have been receptive to the county’s outreach, Smolko said. The county will continue its education efforts to help homeowners make small changes that it hopes will result in big improvements in water quality.
Skrivanich, whose family has owned its Vaughn Bay property since 1976, is happy to see attention paid to the bay’s health.
“I think it’s the absolute best thing that’s happened to Vaughn Bay,” she said. “It’s really united a lot of people.”