Tackling Water Pollution One Creek At A Time

Jun 14, 2012

Barker Creek cuts through the semi-rural landscape of hobby farms and small towns on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula. And like many small waterways in this region, Barker Creek has had problems with fecal coliform. Rain washes the bacteria from animal manure and leaky septic systems into nearby waterways.

In some watersheds, the contamination can get so bad that officials have to close shellfish beds and post signs warning people to stay away from the water. EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn reports on one success story.

For the first time since 1996 Barker Creek has its fecal coliform levels under control. But Stuart Whitford says it wasn’t an easy fix. He’s with the Kitsap Public Health District and oversaw the clean up.

Whitford and his staff took monthly water samples up and down this 6-mile creek. Then they traced the fecal coliform hot spots back to individual properties.

Whitford: “It’s kind of like forensics. Yeah, it’s not quite CSI but there’s a lot of investigation. You need to go door to door because the contamination is occurring on multiple properties and then building up and making its way to the stream.”

All told, he and his staff have visited more than 100 properties along this waterway. They worked with the local conservation district to help farmers deal with animal waste and keep livestock away from the creek.

They also required 11 homeowners to replace old leaky septic systems.

Shannon Harkness was one of those homeowners. She and her husband and three daughters live on a small farm along Barker Creek near Silverdale, Washington.

Shannon Harkness: “The creek is just right down there. It borders the other side of our fence there.”

Ryland Harkness: "That’s Tony, the noisiest. She’s really nosy."

Ryland is 9. She and her sisters – Paige and Quinn - are showing me around Red Barn Farm with their mom.

Ryland disappears into the barn and comes back with a kid goat on a leash.

Ryland Harkness: “This is Nate the Great. Nate and Nacho are brothers.”

The girls plan to bring Nate, Tony and Nacho to local 4H competitions this year.

The Harknesses put in fences to keep their goats and llamas away from the creek.

Animal waste is the biggest threat to water quality in agricultural areas.

Shannon Harkness: "When you have animals it’s an added responsibility. They’re like having kids. They can’t clean up after themselves so you have to."

Ahearn: "Girls out scooping poop? Absolutely. What do you think about that Ryland?"

Ryland Harkness: “It really stinks but it’s farm stuff.”

But cleaning up animal poop wasn’t the hardest part for the Harknesses in keeping Barker Creek clean. 10 months after they moved in, Stuart Whitford and the County health department came knocking.

Shannon Harkness: “I guess as politely as they could, they failed my septic system that day. And you have three small children and a lot of hopes and dreams and putting in a 20K septic really wasn’t one of them.”

The Harknesses took out a second mortgage on their house and got a loan to cover the new septic system.

The family doesn’t take vacations. The new bathroom and kitchen Shannon Harkness hoped for have been put on hold.

Shannon Harkness: “Ultimately we have a responsibility to our land and we have a responsibility to our community and we have shellfish beds down there and everybody enjoys shellfish and it’s important that we take care of stuff up here so we can enjoy shellfish down there.

Barker Creek empties into Dyes Inlet, a rich shellfish area that often has sections that are closed to harvesting because of fecal contamination.

But since Barker Creek’s fecal coliform levels have improved, some sections of tide flats near the mouth of the creek have been reopened.

Small scale, local watershed improvements like this one are going on all around Puget Sound, but it’s a long hard process.

Josh Baldi is the special assistant to the director of the Washington Department of Ecology.

Baldi: “Barker Creek is very representative throughout PS of the challenge we face today. It’s no longer about the big point source pollution – the factories, the wastewater treatment plants. It’s about the small impacts that add up.”

Baldi says Kitsap County has been a leader in dealing with stormwater runoff pollution. Governmental agencies are funding programs to mimic Kitsap County in a handful of other counties around Washington.

But fecal coliform remains one of the major pollution problems in the state. 1/5 of the water bodies Ecology tests do not meet standards and almost 20% of shellfish beds in Puget Sound are closed due to pollution.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio