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The water’s fine, come on in at Windjammer Park

Zachary and Savannah Saho wade in the Windjammer Park lagoon. - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
Zachary and Savannah Saho wade in the Windjammer Park lagoon.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

Just in time for the sunny weather, Island County Public Health has given the all-clear for swimmers at Windjammer Park lagoon and beach after water quality test results revealed that the water is safe to play in.

Kathleen Parvin of Island County Public Health collected test samples two weeks ago. Parvin gathers the sample results for the BEACH program, which is funded through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and provides important information about the cleanliness of local beach waters.

The testing reveals the level of a nasty little bacterium called enterococci, which, if swallowed, can cause gastrointestinal and upper respiratory illness.

“Oak Harbor is one of the core set of beaches,” she said of the testing locations that are selected by the number of people who frequent the areas.

This year’s first round of tests returned “excellent” results for the beach and lagoon at Windjammer Park, a popular warm-weather destination for locals and tourists, but there was an exception to the near-perfect set of results.

The sample taken near the boat ramp at the park’s west end contained more than seven times the maximum “swimmable” amount of bacteria.

“It’s not a good place to play in the water,” Parvin said of the area near the stormwater outfall, although the reading didn’t surprise her. “I will have no choice but to post that area if the high readings continue.”

In contrast, the two other beach readings and the three lagoon sample results were “excellent,” she said. With barely detectable bacteria readings, these areas are safe to swim in. That’s where almost all the swimming is done, so it’s good news for Whidbey’s water lovers.

Bacteria count isn’t the only information collected for the program.

“If bacteria levels are high, area, she records the number of swimmers and birds on the beach. She also keeps a log of the weather, including wind speed and direction, precipitation and temperature.

In the program’s five years, the lagoon was only closed once. The boat ramp area at Windjammer Park was closed the entire summer of 2007 and half the 2008 season, according to BEACH program data.

Freeland Park in Holmes Harbor and Oak Harbor are the only test sites because of the program’s tight budget.

“That’s all we have funding for with the marine water program. In the past we have sampled other beaches and not found any big issues,” Parvin said.

On this first day of testing for the summer season, she collected six samples at Windjammer Park, including three from the lagoon and three off the beach. She also got samples at the end of SE City Beach Street, by the footbridge and at the west-end boat ramp.

The tide dictates Parvin’s collection schedule. An incoming tide is the best and easiest time to test, she said, because wading out during a low tide could be dangerous if she were to get stuck in the mud.

The lab’s schedule also plays a role in where Parvin collects samples, she said, adding that she prefers to deliver her samples to the lab within six hours, although the window can span as long as 24 hours.

According to Parvin, the data suggests a correlation between rainfall and an increased level of enterococci bacteria.

“That’s stormwater picking things up off the land and putting them in the water,” she said.

Over her years of testing in Oak Harbor, Parvin said the bacteria count in the boat ramp sample consistently comes in at a higher level than the other samples because it is near a city stormwater outfall. The 42-inch pipe once extended further down the beach, but the elements have eroded the exposed pipe.

City Engineer Eric Johnston said the city hopes to replace the pipe in the near future. If the pipe is extended beyond the beach, contaminated runoff will still enter the bay, he said, but the distance from shore will allow any pollutants to dilute in the water before reaching shore.

For more information about the BEACH program, or to check weekly test results, visit http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/eap/beach.

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