Imagine you’re a parent and you’re spending an enjoyable day at the beach with the kids. The sun’s out, everybody is having a good time. Then a reporter with a camera and a notepad approaches and says the lagoon your children are playing in has been found in the recent past to contain high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Your head swivels from side to side looking for the posted sign, any form of warning, but there’s none to be seen.
That was what happened to a handful of parents last week at Dave Mackie Park in Maxwelton. They’d come to enjoy one of Whidbey’s loveliest beaches only to learn their kids were playing in water that isn’t just gross, but potentially dangerous. While Maxwelton’s water quality problems are complicated, and the county is trying to address the problem, its failure to ensure that the public was reasonably informed of the situation and the possible risks is deeply troubling.
The issues surrounding the tiny waterfront community go back years and are complex. Boiled down, drainage infrastructure hampered by Mother Nature is resulting in flooding, which in turn is causing area septic systems to malfunction. Island County Public Health has performed regular testing at drainpipe inlets since 2013. Results have varied widely, but the vast majority are far above what the state deems acceptable. For example, the state standard is 50 colony forming units per 100 milliliters, and one sample exceeded that by nearly 4,000 times — 195,000 colony forming units per 100 milliliters.
It should be noted that samples in knee-deep saltwater were OK; the problem areas are at pipe inlets that empty onto the beach and into the lagoon, which is the byproduct of flooding and tidal action. Also, fecal coliform bacteria by itself won’t kill you, but it’s a warning flag for other more dangerous pathogens, nasty stuff like E.coli and enterococcus.
In any case, state regulators agree the numbers are way too high, but have largely OK’d the county’s planned fix — to continue draining the untreated water into Useless Bay but at a greater rate with the installation of a new pipe. The hope is that the area will dry out and allow septic systems to operate properly, or at least help officials pinpoint any in need of major repair.
The county has declined to treat the water, citing expense and a lack of requirements to do so. The state defines “surface” and “storm” water differently, and in this case only the former carries rules or standards. The flooding in Maxwelton is storm water, and county leaders say that means the water quality results are not in fact exceedances at all.
That is technically true, and draining the untreated water directly into Puget Sound — the ole “dilution is the solution” fix — may be the most reasonable approach in this specific instance, but the simple fact that all the water drains to the same place no matter how they’re defined on paper lends little credibility to arguments of semantics. In the same way, just because no one has gotten sick, at least no one that we know of, is no excuse for not ensuring that the public is informed. Like most people, the parents and beachgoers at Maxwelton last week had reasonable trust and faith that if there was any risk at all government would have let them know. That’s why the scenario at Maxwelton beach is such an epic fail.
In a time when places like Flint, Mich., are a reality, and a recent one at that, it’s hard to imagine how any local government wouldn’t take great pains to warn people of even the smallest threat.