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Water monitoring seen as toothless

The Surface Water Quality Monitoring Program for non-tidal waters may be a new pollution guard dog for Island County, but some complain that it has no teeth.

The county program would take a scientific look at surface water pollution and the potential adverse impact on drinking water, salmon, shellfish, seabirds and endangered species.

The most common pollutants of surface water are animal waste, road run-off and leaky septic systems.

The process of detecting these contaminants could lead to some awkward questions for property owners, but there’s a chance nobody will ask.

The program does not allow testers to enter and test water on private property without permission. Furthermore, the program has no provisions for enforcement if any violations are found.

Keith Dearborn, the growth management legal advisor to the county, feels that “policing” violations is not even part of the program.

“This ordinance is not entering into a role of enforcing,” he said Monday, adding that the intent of the program is “not to find people violating state standards.”

Dearborn made it clear that the county would focus only on testing and monitoring. As for pursuing violators he said, “We wouldn’t even know how to do that.”

Dr. Paul Adamus, a biologist contracted by Island County to research water quality, acknowledged that any person who pollutes the surface water “legally has responsibility for exceedences and how they impact the county,” but he too offered no avenue of enforcement.

Steve Erickson, of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, addressed the board of commissioners with concerns over the effectiveness of the proposed water monitoring plan.

Erickson’s main contention was that the program will be ineffective and unenforceable. “The county never takes enforcement action,” he claimed, making the case that flagrant violations of SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) regulations already exist in the county’s surface water plan.

Using water in a jar gathered from Camano Island’s Kristoferson Creek as a visual aid, Erickson told commissioners that bacteria in the creek are already at “exceedence” levels.

“The levels are way over state standards,” Erickson said as he walked over and handed the container of yellowish water to Commissioner William Byrd, whose territory includes Camano Island.

SEPA, through the Department of Ecology, would most likely be the only avenue of water quality enforcement in Island County.

“The Department of Ecology seeks to assure compliance with environmental laws. Ecology’s enforcement policy stresses the importance of providing the regulated community an opportunity to voluntarily comply with environmental laws” states the SEPA Web site. “When voluntary compliance is not achieved, Ecology pursues enforcement.”

Lou Malzone of Freeland also doubted the effectiveness of the water quality monitoring program as proposed at Monday’s meeting.

Malzone questioned whether the tax dollars spent on the monitoring program would lead to better protection of the environment. “Your ordinance not only allows a property owner to refuse access by the county to private property ... but also suggests that Island County intends to rewrite the Critical Areas Ordinance to accommodate sources of pollution if they fall under the category of new uses,” she said.

Such public input appeared to make an impact on the commissioners. The board put off a decision on adopting the program for two weeks pending language revisions and further discussion.

The commissioners said they are not looking for a quick fix and hope to adopt a program that works.

“We’re into monitoring water quality for the long run,” said Commissioner Mike Shelton. “I think to assume somehow that the county is going to ignore exceedences is ridiculous. It is not the way we would operate.”

The April 24 public hearing will convene at 2:30 p.m. at the Island County Courthouse Annex Building in Coupeville. Public comment on the program is welcome.

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