SILVERDALE, Wash. — 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.
But, for the first time since 1996, Barker Creek has its fecal coliform levels under control.
Stuart Whitford, who oversaw the clean up of this creek for the Kitsap Public Health District, says it wasn’t an easy fix. Whitford and his staff took monthly water samples up and down the six-mile-long creek. Then they traced the fecal coliform hot spots back to individual properties.
“It’s kind of like forensics,” he says though it’s not exactly CSI: fecal coliform, there’s a lot of investigating that has to get done. “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, Whitford and his staff have visited more than 100 properties along this waterway and worked with the local conservation district to help farmers manage their land to deal with animal waste and keep livestock away from the creek.
They also required eleven homeowners to replace old leaky septic tanks. Shannon Harkness was one of those homeowners. She and her husband and three daughters live on a small farm along Barker Creek near Silverdale, Wash.
“The creek is just right down there,” Harkness says while standing at the edge of a large pasture where five kid goats frolic about. “It borders the other side of our fence there.”
She points at a swathe of trees that provides a buffer zone between her livestock pasture and the creek beyond.
Ryland, Harkness’s middle daughter, comes out of the red barn with a snow-white kid goat on a leash. She and her sisters – Paige and Quinn - plan to show their llamas and goats at local 4H competitions this year.
“This is Nate the Great,” 9-year-old Ryland exclaims. “Nate and Nacho (her sister’s goat) are brothers.”
Animal waste is the biggest threat to water quality in agricultural areas. The Harknesses put in fences to keep their goats and llamas away from the creek.
“When you have animals it’s an added responsibility,” Harkness says. “They’re like having kids. They can’t clean up after themselves so you have to.”
That means on top of their homework and other farm chores, Paige, Quinn, and Ryland are regularly sent out into the pasture to scoop poop.
But cleaning up after their livestock wasn’t the hardest part for the Harknesses in keeping Barker Creek clean. Ten months after they moved in, Stuart Whitford and the county health department came knocking.
“I guess as politely as they could, they failed my septic system that day,” Harkness recalls. “And you have three small children and a lot of hopes and dreams and putting in a twenty thousand dollar 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 and the new bathroom and kitchen Shannon Harkness hoped for have been put on hold. She shrugs.
“Ultimately we have a responsibility to our land and we have a responsibility to our community and all of that is tied in,” she says, one arm around Ryland, still holding Nate-the-Great’s leash. “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.
View Barker Creek near Dyes Inlet in a larger map
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.
“Barker Creek is very representative throughout Puget Sound of the challenge we face today, says Josh Baldi, special assistant to the director of the Washington Department of Ecology. “It’s every day pollution from all of us, whether it be septic systems, the way people manage their yards and the way they live on the landscape, whether it be animals too near streams, farm animals, small hobby farms that have horses or llamas, all of these thousand points of pollution 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.
While the situation is improving, fecal coliform remains one of the major pollution problems in the state, with 1/5 of the water bodies Ecology tests not meeting standards. Almost 20 percent of shellfish beds in Puget Sound are closed due to pollution.
(2010 Water Quality Assessment data for freshwater, courtesy of Jessica Archer, Washington Department of Ecology)
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