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Shellfish closure may mean state money for sewers

There is a possibility that something positive may come out of the shellfish harvesting closure at Holmes Harbor: Money.

Officials from the state Department of Health said that counties with a shellfish protection district — something the state requires when ongoing pollution is found — receive high priority for state water-quality financial assistance.

Bob Woolrich and Debby Sargeant presented a summary of their findings to the Island County Board of Commissioners Monday and briefed them on upcoming steps.

High levels of fecal coliform were discovered during a routine survey conducted by the state Department of Health between July and December 2005 at Holmes Harbor. That closure put the southernmost tip of Holmes Harbor, including Freeland Park, off limits to commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting.

Woolrich said the availability of state money to restore water quality could have a positive financial impact on Freeland’s future as the town readies to build a sewer system.

In the past, the Legislature has awarded other communities money to improve their wastewater systems, he said.

Health department officials also presented a timeline for the creation of a shellfish protection district.

The county has 180 days to make this shellfish district and protection program.

According to that plan, the Department of Health is currently putting finishing touches on the sanitary survey report. The department will then issue an order about July 1. The 180-day clock starts ticking when the order’s 30-day appeal period ends around Aug. 1.

When a district is formed, a closure response group of different agencies and citizens’ groups — such as the Friends of Holmes Harbor, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Ecology, Indian tribes, the Island County planning department and port offices — will work together to address the issue.

Sargeant said other affected areas in the state had very good results after implementing a shellfish protection district.

State law requires the creation of a shellfish protection district as a measure to prevent contamination of shellfish resources.

In the test area, the state found that water quality in Freeland drainage ditches near the harbor has the highest potential for impact on public health.

The shoreline survey of the Holmes Harbor shellfish growing area was completed by evaluating 16 miles of shoreline and upland areas. The report identified 16 different drainage or discharge ports, 165 developed parcels and five agricultural sites near the Holmes Harbor shellfish growing area.

The report itself was a routine survey of the shoreline that came in response to a request by the Tulalip Tribes, who clam in the area.

The report says that failing septic systems may be contributing to the high fecal coliform levels found in four shoreline discharge pipes near the park.

Officials say a more detailed study will be needed to positively identify the sources of bacteria in those drainage ditches.

In addition, the report also says that the closure may be impacted by the past and present activities of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. However, there is insufficient data at this point to support the claim.

But Woolrich said a drainage detention pond near the industrial site shows high levels of metals and could pose a potential risk at very high tides. No shellfish samples were taken to specifically investigate that as a source of contamination, and Woolrich said no fecal coliform has been been traced to the industrial site.

Potential water quality improvement efforts can include the use of agricultural best management practices, testing and repair or replacement of septic systems, storm-water treatment, education, sanitary sewer planning and construction, and in some cases, advanced microbial source tracking techniques.

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