Clam hot-spot shut down

On any given summer day, people digging clams and filling their buckets with clams for chowder or steamers is a common site at Freeland Park beach.

But those days are a thing of the past — at least for the foreseeable future.

High levels of bacteria were found by state health officials in the southernmost tip of Holmes Harbor, including Freeland Park.

The area is now closed to commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting until the levels of fecal coliform come down. What’s more, state law requires the creation of a shellfish protection district to address the ongoing issue.

High levels of fecal coliform were discovered during a routine survey conducted by the state Department of Health between July and December 2005.

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. The tribes do subsistence clamming in the area.

“There are no real surprises,” said Kim Zabel-Lincoln, author of the survey.

“The problems that Island County face are not uncommon for other beautiful, resource rich areas. Also, this is the end of an enclosed embayment, and high tides can adversely impact the near shoreline areas,” she said.

Although state and local health officials did an eyeball survey of the shoreline that’s dotted by homes and businesses, they were unable to identify specific sources for the pollution.

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. Eighty-one of the developed parcels use one-site sewage septic systems that could be potential sources of pollution.

In addition, the reports says that the closure may be impacted by the past and present activities of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. That, however, is still unclear at this point.

“We are concerned, too. We want to find out what is causing the problems,” said Bryan Nichols, president of Nichols Brothers.

Freeland resident Kurt Johnson echoed Nichols’ concern.

Johnson is a shoreline resident at Beverly Beach, about three miles up harbor. He has a shellfish garden where he seeds clams, mussels and oysters.

“I haven’t seen the report, but I am aware of some ‘hot spots’ in the harbor,” Johnson said.

“I am all for maintaining high water quality,” he added. “We enjoy the benefits of shellfish from the harbor.”

Other sources of fecal coliform include agricultural practices, pet waste and wildlife. Those sources, unlike a drainage pipe, for example, are called “non-point” sources because the pollution does not come from a single, consistent place.

“Any time marine water quality is degraded over time, as opposed to a spill, it is very likely that there are significant non-point pollution issues in the watershed,” Zabel-Lincoln said. “If non-point pollution issues are not addressed at the earliest possible time, the results can be costly to public health, the environment and the economy.”

The survey found five agricultural sites in the study area. Two sites at the tip of the harbor may have the potential to impact the shellfish growing area during times of heavy rainfall. Three other sites further up harbor were high bank and determined to have no impact.

“It’s easy to see why it’s so hard to identify and eliminate non-point sources. The best attack is to be proactive,” Zabel-Lincoln said.

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

State officials will be meeting with the board of Island County commissioners soon to discuss solutions to the problem. That could include forming a shellfish protection district.

The state, however, will take the lead role.

“The state health department is the lead agency at this point. We are assisting them,” said Kathleen Parvin of the Island County Health Department.

Parvin said her office worked with the state to conduct water sampling.

A broken valve in a sewer pipe that serves the Freeland Plaza shopping center may have been a part of the pollution problem. That potential source may no longer be a danger, however.

“The valve was repaired earlier this year,” Parvin said.

But a separate pipe installed in the woods between the shopping center and the shoreline is being tested, too.

“We don’t know who the pipe belongs to, but we are sampling from that area,” Parvin said.

When shellfish beds are closed or threatened by pollution, local governments are responsible for taking action to protect and restore those waters.

State law requires counties or cities to establish shellfish protection districts and programs to curb the loss of shellfish beds by sources of non-point pollution.

Because of the closure at Freeland County Park, the county must create a shellfish protection district and establish a program to address the causes of the pollution.

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

“Island County is fortunate because you have citizens interested in participating in the process,” said Zabel-Lincoln.

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