How healthy is Bellingham Bay’s stormwater?

What we learned from sampling stormwater runoff into Bellingham Bay for a year. | March 17, 2022

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(Amin Hasani, Unsplash)

Ahhh…the pitter patter of rain gently falling on your roof — soothing you to sleep — but alas, for some folks this sound can be a cause for insomnia. When rain hits our roofs and pavement it picks up all sorts of pollution along the way and delivers it directly into our waterways. This water does not go to a treatment plant. Dirt, bacteria, metals, pesticides, weed killer, soap, petroleum and more end up in the Salish Sea via storm drains and creeks. Stormwater is the number one source of pollution in the Salish Sea and is killing salmon directly and impacting countless other organisms in a myriad of ways, including those who depend on it for sustenance. But how bad is this pollution in Bellingham and what does that mean for Bellingham Bay? We were curious and wanted to find out!

Filling a data gap in Bellingham’s stormwater

We began this journey by scouring for data on stormwater quality in Bellingham and quickly discovered that there was very little information on water quality at outfalls (the places storm drains flow to, releasing all that water and pollution). Regularly monitoring outfalls is not required, so it often isn’t done. During the fall of 2020 we developed a study that would monitor six large outfalls and two urban creeks (Squalicum and Whatcom) every month to better understand the quality of the water that is being dumped into the bay, and to fix pollution sources when we found them. See the map below for the monitoring locations. These outfalls and creeks drain the majority of the built-out areas in Bellingham and provide a great overview of the general stormwater health of the city.

Basic water quality parameters were measured including dissolved oxygen, water temperature, conductivity, pH, ammonia, turbidity, and Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. The water was also monitored for visuals (sheens, bubbles, etc.), odor, color, and flow.

Murky waters, clear findings: Check out our pollution map!

We soon found out that all the monitoring sites had different personalities. Every one of them exceeded state water quality standards at least five times over the year and one had over 27 exceedances — that’s over two exceedances per month!  But they varied on what parameters were of concern.

How to use our stormwater monitoring map

Click on the image below to open our interactive stormwater monitoring map in a new tab.  This map is a feature of the Waterkeeper Alliance’s Water Reporter app, and shows two sets of data in our region:

  1. Water Reporter Posts, which maps instances where users of the Water Reporter app reported instances of suspected pollution in the Bellingham area.
  2. Monitoring Program, which maps the eight locations where our scientists monitored stormwater outfalls and streams flowing into Bellingham Bay.

To focus on the monitoring program data, toggle off the Water Reporter posts in the map detail menu on the left side of the map. Next, navigate to specific location markers on the map to see how each outfall or stream scored across several pollution criteria. Use arrows on either end of the the bar at the bottom of the map to browse the different indicators.

button image showing the stormwater monitoring project map and a yellow button reading Open the Map


After looking critically at the data we assigned each monitoring site an overall rating of Threat, Watch, or Good.  Threat signifies that the site has severe exceedances that occur regularly (not just once or twice).  Watch signifies that the site has some exceedances but they are either very infrequent or unable to link to a pollution source.  Good denotes a site that rarely has an exceedance and when it does occur it is not egregious.


Bellingham Bay stormwater monitoring site water quality ratings

What comes next

We are in close communication with the City of Bellingham, the Port of Bellingham, and the Department of Ecology. The agencies have been receptive to the information we are providing them and have already removed some of the pollution sources. For example, a petroleum sheen noted at the C Street outfall was found to be from a leaky car up the road, the owners were approached and the car was removed (but to where?). High E. coli counts also at the C Street outfall were attributed to a couple of RVs that were dumping their toilettes directly into the storm drains. City and Port employees joined RE Sources at the C Street outfall in February to look at and discuss the pollution problems witnessed here, most notably a white bacterial mat — yuck!

Bacteria growth can be an indication of a pollution source. In this case it may be related to the sulfur smell (think rotten eggs) and the E. coli. We were encouraged to hear that the City was planning to do a DNA analysis of the substance to identify it to species, this will help understand if it is growing in response to a certain type of pollution.

A person leaning over a turbidity tube full of water with an stormwater outfall in the background
Pollution Prevention Specialist Kirsten McDade taking water samples with a turbidity tube.

The high bacteria counts found at Boulevard and Bennett still need to be addressed, particularly because these areas are popular for recreation — including swimming. Even very small amounts of E. coli can cause illness. The high conductivity we found, which is an indicator of potentially polluting dissolved substances, at the Cedar outfall are a mystery as well. This drainage system travels under a Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) Cleanup site called RG Haley where wood was treated with petroleum products.

The Cornwall Landfill MTCA site sits next door. It is unknown whether either of these cleanup sites are contributing to these exceedances. Both of these sites are expected to be cleaned up within a few years; it will be interesting to see if the water quality changes after the cleanup work.

E. coli bacteria is likely coming from human waste and pet waste. In the near-term, we recommend the City install more port-o-potties and dumpsters for those experiencing homelessness. More comprehensively, creating more affordable housing and investing more in support services for those experiencing homelessness can also have positive benefits to our environment.

There are an estimated 20,000 dogs in Bellingham and everyone that owns a pet needs to clean up after them. We recommend that the City install more dog waste stations and more trash cans especially in public areas near waterways.

The Big Picture: Too many chemicals

The sources of pollution impacting the health of Bellingham Bay and the water that feed into it are varied and multi-faceted, but the big picture is clear. As a community, we need greater attention and development to addressing water pollution. We urgently need stronger regulations and greater investments in stormwater filtration. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and we’re joining fellow Waterkeeper Alliance member organizations around the country in calling for fuller implementation of the CWA by the federal government, along with stronger state and local water protections.

You can help protect our waters

If you don’t run into RE Sources on the beach, but see some fishy pollution (pun definitely intended), you can easily report it with the free Water Reporter app. Stopping pollution is a vital, easy and dare we say FUN way to protect the Salish Sea. All it takes is a keen eye and a smartphone — you can keep water clean while out walking your dog or strolling to work.

Volunteer Water Reporters use their smartphones to photograph pollution, algal blooms and other changes they are seeing in Northwest Washington’s streams, rivers, lakes and marine waters. Photographs, latitude and longitude data, and observational notes are then shared with other Water Reporters and our staff through the Water Reporter app.

Water Reporters’ documentation has helped to spur emergency responses to pollution and algal blooms, identify impaired water bodies, and document evidence of climate change. Over time, peoples’ notes in Water Reporter are helping us amass a collection of visual data on the health of our region’s waters and how it may be changing.

Three easy steps to stop pollution anytime, anywhere:
  1. Download the Water Reporter app below and create an account
  2. Search for the “North Sound Baykeeper” group and hit Join
  3. Snap a picture of the possible pollution source, add a description and post it. Our North Sound Baykeeper team will be on top of it, alerting agencies who can clean it up. Not sure if it’s pollution? No problem! When in doubt, report. See our guide to spotting common pollution. And check the Videos and Downloads tab of this page for video guides.

Download on iPhone Download on Android

Not able to use the app? Instead, report pollution with a call or text the Pollution Prevention Hotline: (360) 220-0556

You can also take a critical look around you and your home. Are you contributing in any way to our pollution problem? What do you put on your lawn? How do you wash your car? Do you clean up after your pets? How can you reduce your everyday impact and inspire others to do the same?

Want to dig deeper into the data and findings? Read our full report.