Water Matters: Public health and water quality

It all started with oysters.

Now, get your head out of the gutter – I’m talking about cleaning up Dungeness Bay.

But gutters have a role, too …

Believe it or not, public health emergencies used to be fairly tame compared to the crisis happening right now.

The story goes like this. About 20 years ago the state Department of Health closed hundred-acre chunks of Dungeness Bay one after the other to the harvest of clams and oysters, citing unsafe levels of fecal bacteria. So-called “downgrades” are a public health emergency because people could become very ill if they ate shellfish from contaminated waters.

The required response of Clallam County was to designate a “shellfish protection” district and a stakeholder committee to coordinate efforts for reversing the trend. In 2001, the “Sequim-Dungeness Clean Water Work Group” was born.

Still in existence today, the Work Group’s purview is vast, incorporating the entire Dungeness watershed, Sequim Bay and west to the farthest extent of the irrigation system at Bagley Creek. The reasoning twenty years ago was that if Dungeness and Sequim Bays were going to be cleaned up then all the drainage influencing them from summit to shore had to be addressed.

In particular, the Dungeness River and several tributaries became known for elevated fecal bacteria in the 1990s, especially during storm season when runoff enters streams. These data indicated streams were directly impacting marine water quality.

In addition, the network of irrigation ditches receives contaminants from adjacent rural as well as urban land, and moves water in summer as well as winter in just about every direction – with Dungeness Bay at the end of the line.

What to do?

The Clean Water Work Group soon learned that the bacteria were literally coming from everywhere, according to Microbial Source Tracking studies. Data showed that all species in the watershed, from horses to ducks, dogs and people, were represented in the fecal bacteria in the Bay.

The only ones with non-natural abundance, however, were linked to human activity such as farm animals, pets, and septic systems.

Apparently, stakeholders included everyone – literally – which meant that clean-up was not going to happen unless the general public was also a partner.

The Work Group drafted a strategy to clean up the Bay in 2004 heavily focused on outreach and education, and within five years recovery was underway. Effective public education requires inspiration and creativity – and funding.

Work Group partners stepped up and have been successful with many grant applications that complement their missions:

• Clallam Conservation District stepped up its technical assistance for farmers for protecting soil and water.

• Clallam County passed regulations to require regular septic system inspections.

• The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe stepped up its monitoring programs and education at the Dungeness River Audubon Center.

• WSU Extension stepped in to fill a gap in educating landowners about proper stormwater management.

• Streamkeepers of Clallam County partnered with other agencies to monitor the health of all the streams.

• The county and city also addressed groundwater quality since nutrients found in our aquifers come from the same sources as bacteria found in surface waters.

Working jointly now for two decades, the Work Group partnerships are cemented and their objectives are often shared. For example, more recently the Conservation District stepped in to handle loans for fixing faulty septic systems identified by the County.

One of the newer shared monitoring efforts is the Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) program designed to drill down to find very localized sources of contamination.

Public health and the economy

The Work Group has been so successful that over 1,000 acres of closed shellfish beds have been reopened and new commercial operations are planned. I recall now that my very first “Water Matters” column in 2015 covered the celebration of upgraded commercial shellfish beds in Dungeness Bay. The Clean Water Work Group was toasted and oysters were roasted …

I’m thankful that this is a state and country where many pollution problems are fixable, funding is available, and people are inspired to make those fixes happen.

For more information on the Clean Water Work Group and how to reach its partners, see www.clallam.net/HHS/EnvironmentalHealth/shellfish_dg.html.

End note

While fecal bacteria are no longer likely to make us sick from clams at Cline Spit or Three Crabs, we also need to beware of toxic algae such as red tide, or the norovirus. Always check Washington Dept. of Health “Shellfish Safety Information” at fortress.wa.gov/doh/biotoxin/biotoxin.html.

Geek moment

Shellfish growing area classifications are set by Washington Department of Health based on statistics for the last 30 samples of marine water collected, over several years. This ensures that up or down trends are real and not due to a single dry summer or an especially severe storm, for example.

How ‘bout that snowpack? If you miss March Madness and other TV entertainment, consider a trip to Hurricane Ridge instead. Spring skiing and snowshoeing should be fantastic for weeks to come!

For the 2020 Water Year (started Oct. 1):

• Snow depth at the Dungeness SNOTEL station, elev. 4,010 feet, as of March 15 = 32 inches, Snow Water Equivalent = 10.4 inches (158 percent of normal); Number of days temp stayed below freezing = 13

• Rain in Sequim at the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level) through March 15: Total rainfall= 13.4 inches; High temp. = 63 degrees Fahrenheit on Oct. 16; Low = =N:E= degrees Fahrenheit in Nov.

• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: up to 4 cfs; Bell Creek near the mouth, at Washington Harbor: non-storm flow generally 5-10 cfs.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.