Fecal bacteria, stormwater, & what you can do to keep water less gross

October 27, 2023

When summer ends, western Washington is not exactly known for crisp, crunchy autumn leaves. We’re more of a “squishy leaves that you slip on like a cartoon banana peel” kind of place. On practically the same day that pumpkin spice drinks pop up everywhere, the rains and stormwater come, and our region’s ground stays more or less totally soaked for several months.

But aside from gloopy leaves, all that water does come with a caveat:

Fall rain flushes stormwater pollution into our waterways

Over the dry summer months, harmful pollutants build up on the land. Think about all the un-scooped dog poop, motor oil leaks, agricultural products, and tire skid marks that millions of residents and visitors leave behind. When the rain returns with the “First Flush,” pollutants that have built up over the summer get washed into storm drains, creeks, and ditches — eventually making their way to our bays and harbors. As the seasonal rains continue, soils become saturated. Saturated soils allow pollutants, including fecal bacteria, to wash directly into waterways. And this runoff, also called stormwater, is the single biggest source of toxic substances flowing into the Salish Sea.

Too much bacteria can close beaches to swimming and shellfish harvest. In fact, from October through December, Portage Bay (at the base of the Nooksack River) is closed to shellfish harvest each year. 

Like human poop, pet poop is raw sewage that contains bacteria, viruses, and parasites which can transmit disease to people. Some of these pathogens can last for years in the environment or your backyard.

Yikes! How can I make water cleaner?

Stormwater drain with vegetation around it to help filter water
Stormwater is cleaner when it gets filtered through pervious, vegetated surfaces

A few good habits through the rainy season can help reduce fecal bacterial pollution entering our waterways, keeping our water clean and our community healthy. Below are some handy tips from Whatcom County (plus a few from elsewhere in the PNW) to protect waterways, whether you live in town, in a rural area, or anywhere in between!

Tips for everyone
  • Scoop and properly dispose of pet waste! There are lots of county resources here.
  • Maintain your vehicles regularly and check them for leaks. Motor oil, gas, and other leaks from vehicles are a huge stormwater pollution source.
  • Don’t overload waste, compost or recycling collection bins and make sure your trash is bagged. Fall rain events can also come with strong winds. Plastics from overfilled crates or trash bins can get blown out into the street and end up in storm drains where they contribute to stormwater pollution. 
For homeowners
  • Clear your roof of moss and leaf debris early and often. This can help limit moss growth and the need to use de-mossing treatments, which often contain corrosive compounds that are toxic to fish and wildlife. Gently scrub moss as it grows on shingles, or consider a biodegradable, soap-based moss killer. Metal roofing materials are also moss resistant.
  • Increase the permeability of your property. You can replace concrete and blacktop with gravel, vegetation (like a rain garden), or spaced pavers.
  • Live in the Lake Whatcom watershed? Look into the Homeowner Incentive Program, which can reimburse you for making home/property improvements that help protect water quality in the runoff that leads to Lake Whatcom, a drinking water source for 100,000+ people.
For septic tank systems

Regular evaluations and maintenance of your septic system can find problems early and avoid costly repairs. Each septic system is designed to process a specific amount of wastewater each day — when too much goes through your system in a short period of time, the solids in the wastewater don’t have enough time to settle in the tank. The solids make their way into the drainfield and can eventually cause expensive problems.

  • Repair leaking toilet flappers. A worn out toilet flapper can allow water to leak from the toilet tank to the toilet bowl. These leaks often go unnoticed and could send hundreds of gallons of additional water through your septic system each day. It’s cheap and quick to fix! Here’s how to locate and repair a leaking toilet flapper.
  • Divert runoff and downspouts. Divert water away from your septic system, including your drainfield. Check that gutters and downspouts are in place and direct water away from these areas. Drainfields typically fail because too much water from the house and/or an outdoor source has been flushed into them, keeping them constantly saturated. A drainfield that is failing is no longer treating sewage properly and must be replaced.
  • Spread out the timing of your laundry loads. Try to do laundry throughout the week and avoid doing it all in one day. Modern high-efficiency washing machines can use between 10 and 20 gallons of water per load. Older top-loading washing machines can use up to 40 gallons per load. Washing five loads of laundry in one day could send more than 200 gallons of water through your septic system.

Whatcom County also offers rebates for septic services. For more information about septic systems, visit www.whatcomcounty.us/septic

Boat and RV users

If you are returning from your last summer trip or thinking about getting an early start on winterizing, remember to use a pumpout station. Discharging black or gray water onto a field, into a storm drain, or directly into the water is not a solution! Here’s a list of pumpout stations for boats, and here is a searchable list from the Department of Transportation with RV dump stations.

For farms

September is the best time to prepare for the rainy season. Consider places on your farm where pastures stay wet or flood, where gutters overflow (or don’t exist), and where you plan to have your animals overwinter.

  • Avoid overgrazing as grass growth slows in August through October. Overgrazing can lead to compaction, which increases runoff, and a lack of surface cover which slows down water for infiltration and captures pollutants.
  • Make plans to move animals from pastures that become saturated in the fall and winter. Animals on wet fields can compact the soils and damage pastures.
  • Follow appropriate seasonal manure application setback guidelines for pasturing animals. Just like manure spreading equipment, animals are applying manure to your fields. Check and follow the setback distances that apply to you (e.g. manure application setbacks, Critical Areas Ordinance, or Department of Ecology exclusion). The Whatcom Conservation District can help you determine the appropriate setbacks.

Some tips for nutrient application: 

  • Get your manure out on the fields early. Be sure your manure pile has been spread or your lagoon is empty in early October when field and weather is lower risk. Check with the Whatcom Conservation District’s Manure Spreading Advisory and inquire about borrowing their manure spreader.
  • Follow seasonal manure application setback guidelines. In September, the setback is 40 feet from all waterways and swales. The setback moves to 80 feet from October through the high risk winter months.

Whatcom Conservation District is the resource in Whatcom County for information on rebates and grants for farm improvements, technical assistance, and an equipment loan program. WCD also provides complementary soil tests and tarps for manure piles. Here is a PDF including these tips, plus a few more. Thank you for taking the time to protect our shared waterways.

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