Water Quality Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of water quality monitoring is happening in Birch Bay?

Understandably, residents of the Birch Bay watershed want to know if their water is clean and whether water quality is getting better or worse. To answer these questions, you have to understand what type of pollution is monitored and measured. In Birch Bay, fecal coliform bacteria is the primary water quality indicator monitored. Temperature and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) are also monitored to a lesser extent.

Why focus on fecal coliform bacteria?

Fecal coliform bacteria are a type of bacteria that live in the intestines of warm blooded animals. Their presence indicates that fecal matter has somehow entered the water upstream. While fecal coliform bacteria are not necessarily harmful, they indicate that other disease-causing organisms could be in the water and in shellfish.

Birch Bay is a popular shellfish harvesting and recreation destination making human health and safety a primary focus. Bivalve shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels feed by filtering the water they live in. Because they filter so much water—an oyster can filter at least 25 gallons of seawater a day—they are very sensitive to water pollution, and accumulate bacteria and toxins in their bodies. The quality of the waters in which they grow determine whether or not they are safe to eat.

How is the water quality in Birch Bay watershed?

Concerns about water quality were raised in 2003 when the Washington State Department of Health added Birch Bay to its list of threatened shellfish harvesting areas. Attention to water quality was elevated in 2008 when the Department of Health closed the area around the mouth of Terrell Creek to shellfish harvesting in response to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria measured in the creek. This closure extends 670 yards from the mouth of the creek and remains in place to date.

Water samples taken from the bay (the marine water) usually have low levels of fecal coliform bacteria and have always met state water quality standards. The freshwater streams entering the bay often have high bacteria levels that do not meet state water quality standards. Both the concentration of fecal coliform bacteria and volume of water in these freshwater streams can vary significantly at the same location on different days making it difficult to answer the question, “how is the water quality?” You could say that the marine water quality is good and the fresh water quality is variable and often does not meet standards for bacteria.

For more information see the water quality status maps and reports posted on the water quality main page.

How far back does water quality monitoring data go?

Marine water quality monitoring for fecal coliform started in 1988. Terrell Creek monitoring began in 2004 and coastal drainages monitoring began in 2006.

Is water quality better now than many years ago?

Because water quality monitoring began in the late-1980s to mid-2000s, we can only guess how current water quality compares to earlier conditions. The creation of the Birch Bay Water and Sewer District in the mid-1970s eliminated septic systems in densely populated areas adjacent to the bay and stopped the potential for fecal coliform pollution from their drain fields. Long time Birch Bay residents report that water quality in the bay noticeably improved when this happened. Upstream, landowners report that management practices along Terrell Creek have also improved over the years. For example, the practice of dumping household or farm waste in creeks is no longer common. On the other hand, the overall population Birch Bay has grown significantly in the past 10-20 years, and with more development comes more pollution from stormwater runoff.

Who does the water quality monitoring?

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) monitors marine water in Birch Bay as part of its program to ensure shellfish harvesting is safe. The freshwater drainages throughout the Terrell Creek watershed and along the coastline are monitored by Whatcom County Public Works, the Whatcom Marine Resources Committee, BBWARM, and the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association with help through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How frequently are samples taken?

Marine samples in the bay are taken six times a year. Samples are taken monthly at major coastal drainages along Birch Bay and twice a month at sites throughout the Terrell Creek watershed.

How can we keep the water clean?

Keep fecal coliform bacteria and other disease-causing organisms out of the water by:

  • Picking up pet waste and putting it in the trash both at home AND on walks.

  • Making sure septic systems are properly inspected and maintained.

  • Managing livestock manure to keep it away from creeks and ditches.

Keep excess nutrients out of the water and limit summer algae build up by:

  • Limiting use of fertilizers in your yard and garden.

  • Using alternatives to fertilizers like compost.

  • Managing pet waste and manure as stated above.

Stop other pollutants from entering stormwater by:

  • Never dumping yard waste (lawn clippings, etc...) in or near water ways.

  • Fixing vehicle engine leaks.

  • Washing vehicles at a commercial car wash or on your lawn.