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New Studies Track Pollution Sources In Samish Bay

Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound has been closed to shellfish harvesting more than 20 times in the past three years.

Shellfish beds in Samish Bay have been closed more than 20 times in the past 3 years. (Photo courtesy of Evan Weymouth)

The bay and parts of the Samish River don’t meet state water quality standards. That’s because they contain high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

Two new studies detail where it’s coming from.

Think CSI: Samish Bay. The culprit – fecal coliform bacteria, which comes mainly from livestock, birds and humans.

The challenge: figuring out who are the big contributors to this poop problem.

Researchers analyzed contaminated water samples from Samish Bay and traced the bacteria back to its sources.

“It’s like DNA testing, a lot of people call it,” according to Rick Haley a water quality analyst with Skagit County Public Works.

“What we found is that we have widespread sources including human, ruminant and avian sources all over the watershed.”

One of the studies was conducted by Oregon State University. It showed that 58% of the samples could be traced to livestock, 54% to birds and 17% to humans.

Many of the samples had both livestock and bird markers, and some could be traced to all three sources. Haley says the findings weren’t really surprising.

Rick Haley: “The results of the microbial study are going to help us zone in on a few sources but everyone in the basin understands that they could be part of the problem.”

Bill Dewey is a spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms. They’re the biggest shellfish grower in the country, with some of their beds in Samish Bay.

He says this research could help end some of the finger pointing between livestock owners and homeowners about who’s responsible for the water pollution.

“Being able to refine our knowledge about where the sources are so we really focus those resources appropriately is important and any final naysayers, we’ll bring them into the fold and we can get the whole community working towards a solution is what I’m hopeful for.”

Skagit County will use the information to better identify sources of contaminants like fecal coliform and take steps to manage them.

Governor Chris Gregoire has directed the Puget Sound Partnership to develop an action plan to clean up Samish Bay by September 2012.

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