Testing for pathogens is difficult. Water carries many kinds of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Each type of bacterium, virus or protozoan requires a different test. Many of these tests are expensive because they require special materials, equipment and/or are time-consuming. It is difficult to monitor water for every pathogen on a routine basis. We measure fecal coliform bacteria to estimate and understand the level of fecal contamination in the water. E. coli and enterococcus bacteria are also indicator bacteria that can be used to determine the health of the water.
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The sources of fecal bacteria pollution are varied, widespread and dependent upon surrounding land use. In rural residential and agricultural areas, sources of fecal pollution may include human waste (poop) from improperly functioning septic systems and animal waste from farms, pets, and wildlife. In more urbanized areas, human waste sources can include leaking sewer pipes, sanitary sewer pipes cross-connected with storm sewer pipes, and homeless encampments without available sanitary services. In urban settings, animal waste pollution sources include dog poop left on trails, sidewalks and lawns, and un-naturally high concentrations of urban wildlife (e.g. raccoons, rats, etc.) attracted by human-sourced food. As rainfall or snowmelt moves over the ground, the runoff picks up and carries with it human-made and natural pollutants. Fecal bacteria washes from the land into storm drains or into ditches and creeks that flow through our communities. The pollution flows to larger creeks and rivers, and eventually empties into our bays and harbors where people work, play and harvest shellfish.
No. In the Nooksack River, wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are not a likely source contributing to increased fecal bacteria levels.
WWTPs at Everson, Lynden and Ferndale have Individual National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to discharge to the Nooksack River. Permits require that WWTPs regularly monitor effluent for several parameters, including fecal coliform and specify a monthly geometric mean limit (28 CFU/100mL) for the treated water that empties to the Nooksack River. The WWTPs all comply with their permits. Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) accredits the WWTP labs that analyze samples. An Ecology permit manager monitors required monthly reporting, annually inspects facilities, and verifies sampling results through duplicate samples analyzed elsewhere.
No. Several factors support that pollution sources originating in the Nooksack River watershed are the primary cause of high fecal coliform bacteria levels in Portage Bay. About 5.26 square miles of Lummi Reservation land area drains to Portage Bay. The Nooksack River watershed is about 786 square miles and produces substantially more storm water. The prevailing wind direction from the east southeast and low salinity levels often measured in the marine water of Portage Bay indicate that Portage Bay is heavily influenced by the freshwater flowing from the Nooksack River. Studies summarizing data include https://www.lummi-nsn.gov/userfiles/1_2000_to_2001_Final_DWIF.pdf and the Nooksack River Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load submittal report accessed from https://apps.ecology.wa.gov/publications/documents/0010036.pdf. Approximately 400 residences are located on the Lummi Nation land area that drains to Portage Bay. The Lummi Tribal Water and Sewer District provides sewer services to 380 homes; 20 homes have on-site sewage systems (OSS). The Northwest Indian Health Board regulates the 20 OSS. The Lummi Gooseberry Point WWTP discharges effluent to an outfall located in Hale Passage. Washington Department of Health studies have confirmed that Gooseberry Point WWTP discharges do not reach Portage Bay.
Yes, wildlife may contribute fecal bacteria to water.
Wildlife, including birds, can contribute fecal bacteria to our waterways. Examples may include waterfowl that seasonally visit agricultural fields in Whatcom County and potentially contribute fecal bacteria pollution to water that drains from the fields. Wildlife such as raccoons or rats can be a pollution problem when animals become concentrated in unnaturally high numbers in an area due to food sources made readily available by people (e.g. pet food outdoors or unsecured garbage).
Sometimes, but not on a routine basis. Several misconceptions exist about using DNA testing, or Microbial Source Tracking (MST), to find the source of fecal pollution. One mistaken belief is that a single water sample can point out which specific person or animal is causing the pollution. Current science is not capable of identifying all sources of fecal bacteria in a water sample. Analysis looks for genetic markers for certain species, but we do not have markers for all species. Even if a lab develops a marker for a certain species, not all individuals of that species may carry the marker. MST strategies rely on establishing patterns based on multiple samples taken over time from specific sampling locations. A limited number of labs are qualified to conduct MST analysis and costs are high. Past MST studies in Whatcom County’s Drayton Harbor watershed and in Skagit County’s Samish watershed confirmed already suspected fecal pollution from humans and from ruminants (cows, horses, and sheep) among other unidentified sources. Fecal pollution to water from human, livestock, and pet sources is preventable. Finding and fixing those sources provide the opportunity for improving water quality to healthy conditions.
Find out how your property may be contributing fecal pollution to the water in your neighborhood and make corrections. If you have neighbors who may be contributing fecal bacteria to our community’s waterways, encourage them to fix the problem.
Whatcom Conservation District (WCD) offers free help to residents who ask for assistance in making their rural properties and farms more productive, while reducing the risk of polluting water. A WCD planner can evaluate whether your property may be contributing manure-related fecal bacteria pollution to waterways. If together you identify a problem, the planner can suggest ways to fix the pollution source and may be able to offer financial assistance. Conservation districts are non-regulatory and do not have authority to enforce regulations; help from a conservation district is free and confidential. Contact WCD at 360-526-2381 or see www.whatcomcd.org/ for more information.
Whatcom County residents can contact the Whatcom County Health Department (360-778-6000) with questions about septic systems and for technical assistance. For more information, visit www.whatcomcounty.us/septic.
The Department of Ecology establishes and regulates water quality standards in Washington State. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves the standards. The National Shellfish Sanitation Program establishes separate standards for marine water quality in areas where shellfish are grown.
In January 2019, Washington Department of Ecology adopted updated fresh and marine water quality standards for the protection of water contact recreational uses in state waters. Updates became effective in February 2019. Among other changes, updates include:
Protecting primary contact recreation in fresh water
Protecting primary contact recreation in marine water
Protecting shellfish harvest use: Fecal coliform continues to be the bacterial indicator for protecting shellfish harvesting uses in marine water. Bacteria criteria to protect shellfish harvest use did not change when Ecology updated standards to protect water contact recreational uses. Because fresh water flows to and affects the quality of marine water in shellfish growing areas, we will continue to monitor for fecal coliform in fresh water. New fresh water data will be compared to historic data and to fecal coliform benchmarks to track status toward protecting the shellfish harvest use.
Whatcom County Public Works samples water at a fixed network of sites on a regular basis. For routine sampling, Public Works and other agencies pre-schedule sampling dates. Public Works uses results of routine sampling to characterize long-term conditions at each location and to prioritize pollution reduction efforts. Public Works and other agencies typically conduct non-routine, pollution source identification sampling when a water quality hot spot has been identified or rain contributes to conditions that produce runoff that can be sampled entering waterways.
Maybe. Klebsiella are one of many bacteria categorized as fecal coliform bacteria. Water, soil, and plants, including wood products like mulch or wood chips, can naturally contain Klebsiella. However, about 30 to 40 percent of all people and animals have Klebsiella in their intestinal tract, which are shed in feces. When fecal coliform bacteria counts are too high, it is important to assess what is happening around and upstream of the high sampling result to determine potential sources.
Yes. Klebsiella can make people sick, and even cause death, when ingested in large numbers or by people who have a health condition that makes them vulnerable (i.e. immunocompromised). Studies have shown that, in general, strains of this bacterium from plants, soil, or water are as likely to cause illness as those from animals or people (Struve, 2004). Estimates are that ingesting 100 ml (about 3 oz.) of drinking water containing 35 Klebsiella per ml could be a risk to susceptible people (American Water Works Association, 1999). Klebsiella has been linked to illness outbreaks from contaminated iced tea (Tauxe, 1996) and turkey (Rennie, 1990).
•The US Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology (ECY) have authority to enforce rules related to water quality protection through the federal Clean Water Act. ECY enforces Washington’s Water Pollution Control Act. •The Washington State Department of Agriculture has authority related to water quality protection for licensed cow dairies. •Washington Department of Health (DOH) and Whatcom County Health Department have authority to enforce health and safety regulations related to on-site sewage systems and drinking water. DOH administers the National Shellfish Sanitation Program and regulates shellfish harvest in Washington. •Whatcom County Planning & Development Services regulates land use, such as enforcing the Critical Areas Ordinance and approving farm plan applications submitted for compliance.
Agencies such as Whatcom County Public Works Department (Public Works), Whatcom Conservation District (WCD), and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) do not have authority to enforce regulations. Public Works gathers and analyzes data to prioritize pollution reduction efforts and coordinates landowner contact in the County’s Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) program focus areas. Related to reducing bacteria pollution from livestock and manure, WCD and NRCS serve important roles in providing no-cost, expert advice and planning services for residents who want to benefit from the free help.