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Drayton Harbor on Pollution Rollercoaster

August 2008

Cover Story

Drayton Harbor on Pollution Rollercoaster

by Geoff Menzies

Geoff Menzies currently volunteers as the chairman of the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District’s Citizens Advisory Committee and works as a contractor with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a Seattle-based nonprofit, to manage the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm and related projects which focus on shellfish restoration and pollution control in Drayton Harbor. He has served on the Whatcom County Planning Commission since January 2002.

It was eight years ago when I received a phone call from Betsy Peabody, executive director of a small Seattle-based nonprofit called the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. She was interested in working with me and the community to help restore water quality and shellfish harvesting in Drayton Harbor.

She called me because she knew I’d been involved in watershed planning efforts in the Drayton Harbor watershed since 1990. I was a commercial oyster grower in the harbor prior to its closure in 1995.

At that time (in 2000), shellfish harvesting was prohibited throughout Drayton Harbor due to ongoing and widespread bacterial pollution. It was unusual for someone to call me and offer assistance in this regard.

That phone call led to the development of many unique partnerships and programs that have helped to improve water quality in portions of Drayton Harbor. (Today the Puget Sound Restoration Fund oversees the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm and related projects, which focus on shellfish restoration and pollution control in Drayton Harbor.)

In 2004, a small yet important commercial oyster growing area of the harbor was upgraded from “Prohibited” to “Conditionally Approved.” This new designation allowed for the safe harvest of shellfish under dry weather conditions. Any rain events greater than one-half inch in a 24-hour period would flush pollutants from the watershed into the bay and close harvesting for a week.

That upgrade in 2004 was the direct result of a focused campaign that included numerous studies, community outreach, financial support from many sectors of the community and the dedication of volunteers of the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm.

City of Blaine Stepped Up

The city of Blaine also stepped up in a big way by participating with studies to evaluate and repair their sewage collection system. They now routinely check the integrity of the force sewer main that crosses the entrance to Drayton Harbor and they are in the process of constructing a new sewage treatment plant on Marine Drive that will continue to bode well for the protection of Drayton Harbor.

Since this portion of the bay was reopened in 2004, the volunteers of the community oyster farm (known as the “Farmers of the Tideflats”) have invested over 3,000 hours of their time.

They have planted oyster seed, removed oyster drill from the beds to reduce mortality, thinned their crop, picked and processed more than 70 tons of oysters, performed routine maintenance on our boats, monitored water quality, assisted with water circulation studies in Blaine Marina and Drayton Harbor, spread the word about the wonders of Drayton Harbor, barbecued oysters for the public and helped out with oyster sales in Blaine and at the Bellingham Farmers’ Market.

It has been a great joy for me to work with all of these citizens who care deeply about the full recovery of this place, which they have grown to know so well. Through their hard work, Drayton Harbor is back on the map for oyster connoisseurs far and wide. In his recent book “A Geography of Oysters,” food critic and writer Rowan Jacobsen described our oysters as “rich and sweet, some of the best Pacific’s I’ve ever had.”

They have been very well received here in Whatcom County as well, whether it is from repeat buyers on the dock in Blaine or the Bellingham Farmers’ Market or some of our finest local restaurants like Nimbus and The Willows Inn who buy our yearling Pacific oysters and take great pride in providing a locally grown product.

Over the past couple of years our goal has been to support the transition from a small-scale “community” oyster farm to a larger scale commercial operation that could support itself without outside funding from foundations and volunteer contributions of labor. We have successfully made inroads here in Whatcom County with expanded direct sales on the Blaine dock and at the Farmers’ Market and to local seafood retailers as well as restaurants.

However, expanding the scale of oyster farming in Drayton Harbor would require a significant investment in oyster seed, lease expenses and equipment. Considering that excessive bacterial runoff after rain events continues to cause pollution, restricting harvest 30 percent of the time during the winter season, expanded investment in oyster farming in Drayton Harbor is simply too risky a venture.

Fecal Pollution Index

The Washington State Department of Health just completed a report titled “Fecal Coliform Pollution in Drayton Harbor through 2007.” They use a “fecal pollution index” which provides a single value to express the annual status of fecal pollution in shellfish growing areas throughout the Puget Sound. It is a useful way to show pollution trends in these areas.

In the case of Drayton Harbor, their analysis shows that in spite of improvement in water quality at some sampling stations in the harbor, there is “little evidence of significant overall change in water quality in the harbor over the past 10 years.” Drayton Harbor has the dubious distinction of having the highest fecal pollution index by far of the 94 growing areas that are evaluated by the Washington State Department of Health.

In the most recent Annual Growing Area Review of December 31, 2007, the Washington State Department of Health reports that the now “Conditionally Approved” areas of Drayton Harbor are threatened with a downgrade due to elevated bacterial levels. The Department of Ecology (Ecology) is six months into the data collection stage of a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) study throughout the Drayton Harbor watershed.

They are finding widespread fecal coliform bacterial pollution of surface waters in both the California and Dakota Creek drainages. Preliminary analysis shows that surface water standards are violated at 14 of 30 sampling sites throughout the watershed.

A bacterial-source-tracking pilot study was recently completed for priority subdrainages in the California Creek system. This work was financed by proceeds from the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm, Trillium Corporation and Whatcom County Public Works. Bacterial contamination from livestock waste (ruminants) was detected at all nine locations that were tested and bacterial waste from humans was detected at two of the nine sites that were tested.

Fortunately, the Whatcom County Health Department is using this information with targeted mailings to landowners in these drainages, requesting that they inspect and maintain their septic systems promptly as part of the new countywide septic system maintenance program.

Why is it that 20 years after the Drayton Harbor watershed was identified as such a high priority for nonpoint pollution control and 13 years after it suffered its first major commercial shellfish harvest closure that pollution problems remain to this day?

The Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan, environment chapter, includes a goal to: “Protect and enhance shellfish habitat in commercial and recreational areas in order to ensure a productive resource base for long-term use.” Policy 11M-2 of this section states: “Restore degraded waters within the drainage basins of shellfish growing areas to a level that allows/supports shellfish harvesting.”

Watershed plans have been written by community stakeholders and adopted by Ecology. Shellfish Protection District Water Recovery plans have been written by the Shellfish District Advisory Committee and they have been adopted by our County Council both in 2001 and again in 2007. These plans call for dedicated funding sources and proactive programs to address livestock waste from small farms and human waste from septic systems.

Too Little, Too Late

Although the county is now finally moving toward a more proactive approach, this effort and the resources in staff and funding have been too little, too late.

Now there is a new process underway called the Comprehensive Water Resources Integration Project (CWRIP) to help council members prioritize the myriad of water resource programs that have been identified throughout the county. The County Council will soon be selecting a Level of Service for addressing these various programs. Once this process unfolds, we will have a better way to measure this government’s commitment to the public health problems in Drayton Harbor and its watershed.

Their decisions will determine whether we will ever fully recover water quality in Drayton Harbor to a level that supports the safe harvest of shellfish, which is a key indicator of marine ecosystem health.

For small nonprofit organizations, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm have brought a lot to the table to recover water quality and shellfish harvesting opportunities for all in Drayton Harbor. Unfortunately our County Executive and County Council have not stepped up to the plate to match our efforts to the degree that is needed to turn this situation around.

Pollution in Drayton Harbor is a public health problem and I don’t think they have really recognized this. They view the pollution of Drayton Harbor as a problem for just one small business or currently one small “community oyster farm.” There is a “don’t rock the boat” mentality in Whatcom County government when it comes to enforcement of environmental laws.

Enforcement is hard work, but it is the work of government if there is truly a commitment to protect public health and natural resource industries like oyster farming that depend on clean water.

We plan to finish harvesting the existing inventory of oysters this coming fall as weather allows. We would normally be seeding this summer to insure another prime crop of yearling Pacific oysters for the 2008–09 season. However, until the county invests significantly in cleaning up the watershed through the development of more proactive pollution control programs and stronger enforcement programs, these “Farmers of the Tideflats” are in a holding pattern. Under the current level of pollution, we would just be spinning our wheels to plant seed this summer.

Hopefully the County Council and the County Executive will step up to the plate, as I think they should, to put water quality plans they have adopted into action on the ground. When there is a real commitment to protecting public health in Drayton Harbor, the finest Pacific oysters around should be available again on the docks, in the Farmers’ Market, and in some of the finer restaurants in Whatcom County.

Even if you don’t like eating oysters, you can take comfort in knowing that if the oysters are safe to eat, Drayton Harbor and its watershed are fit and healthy for all to enjoy. §

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