BOW, Wash. — Nearly every time heavy rain falls in north Puget Sound, high levels of fecal bacteria flow into Samish Bay, disrupting work at Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest shellfish producer in the United States.
The bay has been choked by many sources, including animal and human waste, broken septic tanks and farmland runoff. It's been so bad the last two years that the state Health Department has closed the bay to shellfish harvesting for more than 100 days.
"We lost a market opportunity and there's an erosion of consumer confidence," said company spokesman Bill Dewey, who also owns a clam farm in the bay. "And you still have to keep the lights on. The bills don't stop coming."
With patience running thin, state officials have responded with an ambitious cleanup campaign for Samish Bay and all of Puget Sound, the nation's second largest estuary, behind Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast.
They've stepped up inspections, in some cases going door-to-door to track down who's contributing to the pollution. In Skagit County, the county's anti-pollution workers are even using DNA testing to pinpoint whether waste is coming from humans or animals.
Much of the pressure for action has come from the top. Earlier this year, the state downgraded the health status of 4,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds in Samish Bay, angering Gov. Christine Gregoire. She declared that cleanup efforts had failed and ordered a turnaround by September 2012.
"We're not going to flush — literally flush — 4,000 acres down the drain of prime shellfish-growing area," Gregoire said.
The governor isn't the only one who wants a faster cleanup of the sound, which is home to more than 4 million people in the 12 counties that border its waters.
At the mouth of Hood Canal, tribal Chairman Jeromy Sullivan and other members of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Indian tribe are waiting for Port Gamble Bay to recover from more than a century of logging, when the woody waste and toxins from an old sawmill will be long gone. Officials say the tribe has depended on the bay's clams, crabs, oysters and shrimp for thousands of years.
"We have made it our mission to usher Port Gamble Bay back to health and vitality," Sullivan said.
On the Lower Duwamish River in Seattle, James Rasmussen and others in the Duwamish tribe are awaiting the day when there will be no more PCBs and other poisons in the water. In 2001, the federal government put a five-mile stretch of the river on its list of Superfund sites, officially designating it as one of the most contaminated places in the nation.
"We have wild salmon that have a run on this river," said Rasmussen, the coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. "They've got to get through a gauntlet of poison and stuff that's here to be able to survive to get up into the upper watershed.
"Hopefully, in 30 years from now, it will be a very much better place, a place where you might be able to eat a fish that comes out of here."
Cleanup efforts are nothing new on Puget Sound. But some say there's a new urgency this year, driven at least partly by the Democratic governor's intervention in the Samish Bay cleanup in April.
Dewey said he was "exceptionally pleased" with Gregoire's action, adding that it brought more resources and better coordination to cleanup efforts as officials responded quickly to the state's top executive.
"She was not a happy camper," he said.
In what state officials are calling an unprecedented effort, more than 20 organizations have come together in an attempt to clean up Samish Bay by the governor's deadline.
In May, the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency created four years ago to lead cleanup efforts, released a 10-point plan for the bay. Among other things, it calls for stepped-up inspections, portable restrooms for recreationists, more fencing and more education of dairy farmers and other landowners.
Rick Haley, the water quality analyst with the Skagit County Public Works Department, said the county already had sent dozens of waste samples to laboratories for DNA testing — at a cost of $160 per sample — to determine where the pollution was coming from. Haley said the testing was preliminary and the county wasn't ready to discuss its results.
"It's not exact science yet," Haley said. "But if we've got a stretch of river that's consistently showing human (waste), then we'll know to go look harder at the (septic tanks) in that stretch."
Dewey said the work at Samish Bay could go a long way in determining whether similar efforts would pay off elsewhere in the sound.
"What's at stake is whether we're going to be able to clean up the rest of Puget Sound," he said. "Samish Bay is pretty much a classic rural watershed. There isn't any urban center. ... We're talking about runoff from pastures and failing septic systems and things that are more problematic in these rural areas. If we can't do it in the Samish, then we've got a lot of other areas in the Puget Sound where we're in trouble."
While cleanup is already in high gear at Samish Bay, there's a long-range plan for all of Puget Sound. Among the goals to achieve by 2020: Poisons would be reduced enough to allow for the safe consumption of fish, populations of Chinook and Pacific herring would be on the rise and all beaches would meet fecal bacteria standards so that people could swim, kayak and scuba dive without fear of illness.
Fecal bacteria levels have been a persistent problem on the sound, not only on Samish Bay. Earlier this month, for example, Mason County health officials closed Twanoh State Park on Hood Canal to swimming after tests detected high levels in the water.
Gerry O'Keefe, the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, is trying to tamp down any expectations of a quick cleanup. Addressing reporters at Samish Bay last month, he said: "We know that we're not going to be able to do this overnight. It's taken us 150 years to get to where we are today. It's going to take us a while to get out of it."
Instead of "pointing fingers at each other" to assign blame for the pollution, O'Keefe said everyone could contribute to the cleanup.
To that end, the partnership is running a campaign this summer urging the public to pick up after the 1.2 million dogs that live on the sound. According to the partnership, the waste from the dogs is equal in volume to what would be produced by a city of 300,000 people.
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