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Op-ed: Poop in Puget Sound is everybody’s problem; still time to tell Ecology what you think

posted Jan 24, 2018, 9:21 AM by Simon Bakke
By Ann Russell, Clean Water Program Manager. Published in the Bellingham Herald, August 14th, 2016.

It may come as a surprise that the sparkling waters of Puget Sound are silently suffering. The rate of damage to the Puget Sound – from under-regulated industrial pollution, ocean acidification and urban stormwater runoff – still outpaces the rate of recovery. This is unacceptable. As Puget Sound’s degradation continues, recovery efforts need drastic transformation. A solution scaled to the problem requires a resolute commitment from state agencies to implement and enforce protective measures.

Wade King Elementary School third graders conduct a clam survey in Mud Bay in 2014 with the help of the Whatcom Marine Resources Committee and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Where the Nooksack River meets the Puget Sound, rising fecal coliform levels regularly close hundreds of acres of shellfish beds in Whatcom County. Philip A. Dwyer.

The clean water team at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities is engaging in several campaigns this summer to help protect Puget Sound waters, by drawing attention to sources of pollution – from dog poop to septic systems to manure – and what Whatcom County citizens can do to help stop them.

Through Aug. 31, the state Department of Ecology is accepting comments on the draft concentrated animal feeding operation permit, which authorizes certain agricultural operations to discharge pollution (manure) into waters of the state, and sets limits and management practices for discharges. Ecology is responsible for ensuring that pollution from industries is regulated to protect water quality.

Feeding operations are one of the leading causes of fecal coliform pollution to waterways nationwide, and a major cause of shellfish bed and swimming beach closures in Whatcom County. Washington state’s 200,000 dairy cows produce 20 million pounds of manure a day, which is a major source of nitrates and fecal coliform, and other pollutants. The economic, social and health implications of nitrate and fecal coliform pollution are well documented.

Drinking water

In Whatcom County, 29 percent of private wells sampled in the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer (the drinking water source for 27,000 residents) exceeded safe levels of nitrates. A strong feeding operation permit can help address drinking water contamination by ensuring that the application of manure provides only the amount of nutrients that crops are able to uptake, and no more.

The state Department of Agriculture reports a statewide correlation between dairy acreage and concentration of fecal coliform in rivers. Whatcom County has the most dairy feeding operations in the state; Yakima County is second. (By another comparison, Whatcom County’s largest feeding operations have about 3,500 cows, while Yakima County’s largest have about 11,000 cows.) Both counties report some of the state’s highest fecal coliform levels. A strong permit can help address fecal coliform pollution by monitoring when and how manure is applied to fields.

Shellfish beds

Farther downstream in Whatcom County, where the Nooksack River meets the Puget Sound, rising fecal coliform levels regularly close hundreds of acres of shellfish beds. This causes millions of dollars of lost revenue to local businesses, not to mention the loss of jobs and degradation to Lummi Nation’s traditional shellfish beds. A strong feeding operation permit can help address fecal coliform pollution by requiring regular testing of soil and groundwater.

As a community with deep agricultural roots and a growing local food system, this issue hits close to home. While it’s necessary to ensure local agriculture systems are economically healthy and viable, all feeding operations in Washington state must be monitored so that fecal coliform and nitrate pollution can be addressed.

Sharing the costs

It is a fact that a more environmentally protective feeding operation permit will have implementation costs for farmers. But at the same time, the cost of addressing our poor water quality – some of which is caused by under-regulated manure pollution – currently falls on on taxpayers, shellfish farmers, tribes and agencies. We should all share the costs of protecting our waters.

Most industries in Washington state – including refineries, wastewater treatment plants, boatyards, some construction sites, and cities – have discharge permits. The previous permit expired in 2011, and today, only 11 of 450 dairies operate under a discharge permit. Asking Ecology to create a more environmentally protective feeding operation permit is merely asking that agricultural operations be regulated in the same way as other large industries with similar impacts on water quality.

Working with agriculture

The waters of the state are shared by us all. We depend on them to support our health and our businesses. Whatcom County residents value clean water, the aesthetics of our mountains and rivers, and our rural and community character. At the same time, we want to see job growth in agriculture and a thriving local food economy. These are not either/or decisions. The problems we face are complex, interconnected and vast, but our county is full of savvy, innovative and compassionate citizens with the skills to address these problems.

While advocating for changes to the draft permit to better protect our streams, rivers and drinking water, our clean water team is committed to working with the agriculture community to phase in new technologies and help address the costs of implementation.

If you value the Puget Sound and its bounty, please visit the RE Sources for Sustainable Communities website to learn more about fecal coliform and nitrate pollution and the draft permit, then submit a comment to Ecology by 5 p.m. Aug. 31.

Now is the time for our community to call upon Ecology to strengthen and enforce regulations that protect the waters of the state, which so deeply define each and every one of us.

The Department of Ecology has extended its deadline for comment until August 31. This story was updated August 19.