Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bacterial Pollution = Manure Management

Yesterday I talked about the need for a comprehensive notification and education system as one of the keys to fixing our local water problems. Today I will start to provide what I think the priorities need to be in each of the key water issues people identified in my survey. Lets start with what people thought was the #1 problem in our local waters - bacterial pollution or fecal matters.

The bacterial pollution in some of our key waterways, such as much of the Nooksack drainage, has been increasing again in the last few years. The rise in pollution will most likely cause another closure of the Portage Bay shellfish beds which cost the Lummis somewhere near $850,000/year. But this is more than just an economic cost but also a human health issue for anyone that may come in contact with the Nooksack River and the streams that flow into it. While we monitor mostly for the fecal coliform bacteria, its presence indicates the presence of many other bacteria also such as E Coli.

This bacterial pollution comes from many different sources including livestock manure, septic systems, and pet and animal waste. To those who have been paying attention it is clear that the recent increases in this pollution are due primarily to manure from dairies, cattle operations, and the hundreds of small hobby farms in our rural areas not being managed correctly. While there is no doubt that septic systems and pet and animal waste also contribute to this pollution, and need to be addressed, the dramatically high numbers of bacteria in some recent monitoring cannot be accounted for by septic, pet, and other animal waste.

So what needs to be done? Manure needs to be kept out of our waterways. The County and other agencies have ramped up water quality monitoring efforts and this needs to continue. By taking water samples at many places and regularly over the course of the year water problems can be identified earlier. Then additional water samples can be taken at different places along a creek to help pinpoint where the actual pollution is coming from. This is the first part of any successful Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program. Once the problem area has been identified than the “correction” part of the program can take place to alleviate the pollution from whatever source it may be coming from. The monitoring results are also valuable in communicating to the public what is going on, and enlisting their help in correcting problems if it turns out they live in an area with higher levels of pollution.

In addition to correcting known pollution sources we need to do a better job of preventing the pollution in the first place. Many large livestock operators, such as most of the dairies in the county, are required to have custom farm plans that spell out how to properly manage manure so it does not pollute our waterways. Most of these operators are doing a good job, but even a few large operations not following their manure management protocols can have a huge impact on water quality. The state Department of Agriculture oversees dairies in this county, and unfortunately they report that under their rules they have no authority to enforce those required farm plans. In other words dairies are required to have a farm plan, but they are not required to follow that plan by the state regulator. The Department of Agriculture can only enforce the rules against a dairy if they can prove the dairy has discharged manure to our waterways, which is difficult to do after the fact. The County should lobby the Department of Agriculture, Department of Ecology and the Governor’s Office for a change in the rules so these farm plans that are meant to prevent pollution are enforceable, and fines for operators found not to be following a farm plan after a discharge into our surface waters should be tripled.

For the smaller operators and hobby farms the County already has a good Critical Areas Ordinance to protect our waters from this form of pollution. These farms are required to either maintain standard protective buffers along streams (50 – 150 feet) so the manure cannot get into our waters, or participate in the Conservation Program on Agricultural Land (CPAL) which requires operators to have and follow a farm plan. These farm plans provide for manure management techniques that can be used to reduce the width of the buffers. While the CPAL part of the Critical Areas Ordinance could greatly reduce pollution of our local waters, the County has ceased all enforcement of these provisions, and currently has no staff for this activity. Due in part to the County’s lack of enforcement the state Department of Health and the Department of Ecology have brought in personnel to try to correct this void in protection of our local waters. The fix for this portion of the problem is clear. The County needs to ramp back up their CPAL program and get on with the task of ensuring that people in the county that have livestock are either obeying the standard setbacks or obtain a farm plan that would give them the flexibility to reduce the setback widths in return for good manure management practices. The County should ASAP hire two staff members to ramp up this process while at the same time contract with the Whatcom Conservation District to provide free outreach of livestock requirements and technical assistance to property owners to develop their farm plans. For the small hobby farms education and outreach needs to happen first including clear timelines for when enforcement could begin. The dairies and larger cattle operations are well aware of the rules and the time for enforcement is now, and the County should use its authority under the Critical Areas Ordinance to assist the state agencies gain access and enforce our required farm plans and buffers.

While I do not believe septic systems are currently as major a source of bacteria into our local waters as livestock, fecal bacteria from humans has been found nearly everywhere it has been tested for, and failing septic systems or systems that have not been pumped as needed have been shown to be the source of this pollution. The County’s rules for septic system maintenance require an inspection at least every three years, but again after pushback from the public those rules have largely been ignored except in areas defined as “marine recovery areas.” Currently the only area defined as a marine recovery area is the watershed that drains into Drayton Harbor near Blaine. That area is getting focused attention to make sure residents are following the inspection and maintenance rules. With the rise on fecal pollution in the Nooksack I believe the entire Nooksack Basin should be declared a marine recovery area, and the Whatcom County Health Department should then start following the monitoring results from an expanded PIC program to focus where to ensure people with septic systems are following the rules. Currently the County allows residents to self-inspect their septic systems, and the data collected since this was implemented indicates that some people abuse this self-inspection system. If after ramping up the education and requirements for inspections in the Nooksack Basin the levels of fecal pollution from septic systems is still too high we may need to go back to requiring professional inspections of these systems on some sort of regular basis.

Poop from other animals such as dogs and cats and wildlife also add to the bacterial counts in our local waters. While there is little we can do about wildlife, we can significantly reduce the amount of pet waste that ends up in our waters. I know my Shepherd Lab mix produces a good deal of poo each day, and it is my task to manage that crap so it doesn’t end up down the hill in Ten Mile Creek. Pet waste management is just another of those obligations for the privilege of living along the creek. As I talked about yesterday we need to increase our educational program so it becomes standard knowledge, and the only socially acceptable norm, to scoop the poop.

Well I think that is enough about poop for one day. All the above would probably cost the County in the range of $500,000- $600,000 per year to begin with.


  1. After a good dinner, that was kind of a crappy blog post to read, Carl! Two things stand out for me:

    1) the CPAL program will not thrive under current leadership of PDS. There is no will to enforce the ordinance. It was challenging enough to find someone willing to assume those responsibilities when I was director. There has to be leadership behind the initiative to support the staff when the landowner starts whining about the county employees doing their job. I don't know if Jack is willing to do that or not, but it is an essential step. Otherwise, you're throwing money down a hole with little chance of success.

    2) Are you suggesting more education on septic systems rather than professional inspections? I thought your survey showed the public tended to shy away from more "education" but supported more enforcement. We need to get professional inspections going to fix our problems. There simply is not any incentive to a homeowner to report a problem. Provide low-interest loans to low-income homeowners to fix their septic systems. Add $250,000 for a revolving loan fund.

  2. Thanks, Carl. I like clean water, too. 10 years ago, when I sat on the County's Sewerage Appeals Board (now disbanded) I was appalled at how little power this Board had over development applications. We "couldn't" say "no"! Best was to impose additional requirements on the applicant, saying: "You can build if you also do....."!