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A Tour of Padilla Bay Watershed in an EPA process

posted Sep 14, 2017, 10:02 AM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Sep 14, 2017, 12:27 PM ]
by Lee First, North Sound Baykeeper   

The Padilla Bay watershed is comprised of four freshwater sloughs: 
                  1. Joe Leary Slough 
                  2. No Name Slough 
                  3. Little Indian Slough
                  4. Big Indian Slough
These waterways are located in Skagit County (west of Burlington, between the freeway and Padilla Bay). 

The geography of this area is expansive and flat, used primarily for agriculture. Huge fields of berries, potatoes, and hay fields predominate. 

Aside from belonging to the same watershed, these freshwater sloughs have a lot in common:
  • Each waterway meanders through an agricultural landscape that has been altered to facilitate drainage. 
  • Each waterway contains high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which originate in the guts and feces of warm-blooded animals. The bacteria pose a health concern because they are indicators of other pathogens and diseases that make people sick, and cause water to be unsafe for recreation and shellfish harvesting. The sources of the bacteria are likely from non-point sources: septic tanks, agriculture, and wildlife. 
  • The waterways have almost no native streamside vegetation and no shade, so they get overly warm in the summer.
  • They’ve been straightened and dredged in the last 75 years to facilitate drainage for farming, and all have tide gates at or near where they enter Padilla Bay to prevent tidal inflow. 
Joe Leary Slough,  is the largest of the four waterways, and a fascinating example. A historical account notes that 

Joe Leary used to be, “a flowing stream with fish in it.” 

Logs were floated down it, and tugs came in to get the booms. Today, there’s a newly refurbished dike and pump system at the confluence of Joe Leary and Padilla Bay, and a row of 12 tide gates. These allow water to flow out, and block any tidal inflow. 

The water is stagnant and orange-colored due to iron-rich soils, and the tide gates prevent any access by migrating fish. 

Because of bacteria pollution in these waterways, this watershed has been listed under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act. As required by the Act, a Total Maximum Dairy Load process and study is now being conducted by the Washington State Department of Ecology, with assistance from Skagit County and others

What exactly is a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)? A TMDL is a numerical value representing the highest pollutant load a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards. 

Any amount of pollution over the TMDL level needs to be reduced or eliminated to achieve clean water. 

A TMDL study outlines the steps needed to achieve water quality standards, and provides a timeline. 

The goal of this process is to outline the steps necessary to ensure that these waterways get cleaned up, that Washington State water quality standards for fecal coliform are attained, and that the waters are once again clean enough to support recreation and shellfish harvest downstream.  

And YOU are invited and encouraged to participate in the cleanup process. 

Within the next few years, Ecology will develop the cleanup plan, according to extensive sampling. Your input on what steps are needed to reduce the pollution is important! RE Sources will work closely with community groups and people like you to recommend a fair and realistic plan to reduce bacteria sources. Stay tuned! In the meantime, read more about the project