Monday, July 7, 2014

Fecal Matters: Sleuthing for bacteria pollution on the Washington coast

North beaches bacteria study area. 
By Dustin Bilhimer, Water Quality Program

Where is the bacteria coming from that’s showing up at the beach north of Ocean Shores?

The Department of Ecology is partnering with the Quinault Indian Nation, the state Department of Health, and Grays Harbor County to figure this out. This matters because parts of this beach are now closed to razor clam digging during the summer months.

This is a little alarming because our coastal beaches and razor clamming are so important to many of us. It’s part of what makes Washington special.

Beach closures are expensive

When razor beaches are closed due to bacteria, the local economy suffers. An Ecology analysis estimates (based on recent WDFW surveys) that clamming brings around $13.5 million in total dollars spent by clammers and their families in the North Beach area during an average year in the past seven years. That estimate includes money spent near the beaches on hotels, camping, restaurants, groceries, gas, shopping, gambling, and other related expenses. Future razor clam beach closures due to violations of bacteria criteria could cost the local economy $4.5 to 6 million in lost revenue from clam diggers who cancel their trips to the beach.

Detective work happening now to find bacteria sources

This spring, we began a study to find sources of bacteria responsible for the downgrades and closures of some areas to razor clam harvest. Our bacteria study covers approximately 22 miles of continuous ocean beaches from Ocean Shores north to Moclips, also called North Beach.

The study will continue for a year to figure out when and where human-caused bacteria sources are creating water quality impairments, razor clam harvest downgrades and closures, and to help prioritize areas for cleanup. We will be looking for high bacteria concentrations coming from the major streams entering the Pacific Ocean, storm water ditches, and in the marine water near razor clam harvest areas.

Pick up after your dog when you visit the beach.

How people and animals may contribute to the problem

Human-caused sources of bacteria could be coming from malfunctioning onsite septic systems, improperly disposed of dog and horse manure on the beach, and even people who don’t use the restrooms and portable toilets provided at beach access points.  Warm-blooded wildlife, like birds and deer, can also contribute bacteria to the beaches. We will work with Grays Harbor County, the Quinault Indian Nation, local communities, and beach tourists to reduce or eliminate any significant sources of bacteria we find.

Jeff Nelson, environmental health director for Grays Harbor County, said: “Tens of thousands of people visit the North Beach area each year. To ensure continued access to an abundant and safe supply of razor clams it is vital everyone does their part to properly dispose of waste so area beaches remain compliant with the strict sanitary requirements for shellfish growing areas, which includes coastal razor clam beaches.”

What you can do to help

So next time you are at the beach enjoying a beautiful day, think about the simple things you can do to help protect and conserve our Washington beaches:
  • Bag and trash your dog’s pet waste. Don’t just expect the tide to wash it away.
  • Use publicly available bathrooms or porta-potties whenever possible.
  • Pick up your trash and don’t leave food scraps on the beach to attract shorebirds and other animals that might “do their business” on the beach.
Stay updated about water quality at your beaches by keeping up with our BEACH program on Facebook, checking beach status on Coastal Atlas, or joining our listserv. Debby Sargeant is the BEACH Program Manager and is available at for questions.

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