Washington state may give Holmes Harbor clean bill of health

Kathleen Parvin, an environmental health specialist with Island County Public Health, pulls a water sample from Holmes Harbor. State regulators are expected to decide later this month whether to take action that would reopen the area for shellfish harvesting. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Kathleen Parvin, an environmental health specialist with Island County Public Health, pulls a water sample from Holmes Harbor. State regulators are expected to decide later this month whether to take action that would reopen the area for shellfish harvesting.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Holmes Harbor could be reopened for shellfish  harvesting in just a few months, according to state regulators.

Island County Public Health recently submitted years of testing data to the state Department of Health. The agency is in the process of reviewing the information and is expected to make a decision by the end of the month on whether or not to change the current “prohibited” classification to one that would allow harvesting to resume.

“From what I’ve seen, it looks like they have done a lot of work in there,” said Jule Schultz, the restoration lead at the department’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. “It seems water quality is better. The question is, is it good enough.”

Shellfish harvesting in Holmes Harbor has been closed since 2006 when water quality samples revealed unacceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Along with placing a ban on harvesting, the state required the Island County commissioners to form the Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District and take corrective measures to find the problem and restore water quality to within state standards. It has been in place since 2007.

Under a best case scenario, officials from the state agency will upgrade the current “prohibited” classification to “approved,” which would allow shellfish harvesting to resume.

There are classifications in between, including “restricted” and “conditionally approved,” but any change from the current status would legally give commissioners the green light to formally dissolve the protection district.

In a worst case scenario, the state’s review of the county’s data could determine that a change is not warranted and that additional work will need to be done. Such a finding would likely considerably extend the harbor’s reopening.

“A six-month timeline would be quick in terms of a (follow up) review,” Schultz said.

The data being reviewed ranges from collected water quality samples and compiled septic system inspection records to completed capital projects and information-based public information campaigns, according to Keith Higman, director of Island County Public Health.

In general, the data supports good news. While some water quality samples continue to contain unacceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria, the majority are within allowed state standards, he said.

Also, between 2009 and 2011, a total of 310 on-site septic systems were inspected, resulting in 103 corrections, according to figures provided to the Island County Board of Health earlier this year.

That report listed just two reported failures, though Higman noted that additional failures have occurred. The discrepancy is a matter of how they are accounted for.

The two reported to the board were part of the county’s inspection program. Additional failures have been dealt with through the complaint process. Higman estimated about 15 total failures.

Along with the installation of specialized storm drain systems and public information campaigns, such as Scoop the Poop for dog walkers, the cumulative effect can be seen in the water quality samples.

“Overall, we think the water quality in Freeland is improving,” Higman said.

But, as Schultz noted, the question is whether it has improved enough to warrant a reclassification. It’s very possible that the state will need evidence of improvement demonstrated over a longer period of time; a stable history of consistent results, he said.

Higman said he believes the county is very close to having all its samples meet state guidelines but it has been a long road. Water quality testing can only be done during the wet season when ditches and streams are flowing. That has slowed the process considerably.

“I don’t think when we started this process any one of us thought it would take this long,” he said.

There has been some criticism about the length of time it has taken to address Freeland’s water quality troubles. John Brunke, chairman of the citizen’s advisory committee for the Freeland Water and Sewer District, says more could have been done.

“I think they could have and should have been more aggressive,” Brunke said.

For example, he questions why county officials decided not to use advanced techniques to identify the problem early on, such as with the use of DNA testing.

He said the credit for better water quality should go to Freeland residents, as they are the ones who either personally inspected or paid a professional to test their septic systems.

The county made testing mandatory several years ago. The Freeland area has seen a 98 percent compliance rate compared to a 14 percent compliance rate in the rest of the county.

“My impression is the people of Freeland stepped up and got it done,” Brunke said.

Higman said DNA testing was not used for several reasons. Perhaps the most significant is that it is a little too precise. One water sample will identify one particular species while a second would identify another.

“It’s a misnomer to think you can collect a DNA sample and say, ‘Ah hah, (the overall problem) is a dog,’” Higman said.

“It certainly doesn’t tell where it’s coming from,” he said.

To make any real conclusions, a lot of testing would have had be done and it would have needed to take place over a long period of time. The problem is that it’s expensive.

In fact, it’s so expensive that coupled with the possibility of miseleading results, the state Department of Ecology refuses to fund it, Higman said.

According to Schultz, the county’s efforts are nothing to be ashamed of. There are currently 11 established shellfish protection districts in the state with a 12th in the process of forming on the coast in Grays Harbor County.

Of those, several have been in place since the late 1990s. The oldest, Drayton Harbor in Whatcom County, was created in 1995.

“I don’t think five years is an exorbitant amount of time at all,” Schultz said. “I would say it’s pretty good.”

If a change in classification is warranted, the state agency would issue a legal order, which would begin a 35-day appeal period. Once complete and if the decision stands, the Island County commissioners could then take action to officially dissolve the protection district. At that time clamming would again be allowed and, presumably, signs warning against swimming would be removed.


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