County health project to tackle water pollution

The importance of water quality starts to get personal when it involves the family dinner table.

“A very clear measure of health is whether or not you can eat from the waters in your backyard,” said Betsy Peabody, executive director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. “We want to address pollution sources so we can reconnect people to the health of that resource in our community.”

Bacteria, which grows in response to human and pet waste, is responsible for closing several shorelines from shellfish harvesting.

After a 148-acre shellfish closure near Bainbridge Island in 2009, several community organizations are trying to track down the pollutants responsible.

Kitsap Health District was awarded a Centennial Clean Water Fund grant from the state Department of Ecology to conduct shoreline surveys of the Port Orchard Passage Shellfish Harvest Area, including the City of Bainbridge Island’s western shoreline along Crystal Springs and Agate Passage.

The study will look at shoreline drainages such as streams, seeps, stormwater pipes and privately owned drain pipes to identify and eliminate sources of fecal coliform bacteria in a Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) form.

The project is funded through: a $118,000 grant from the Washington Department of Ecology; a local match of $25,000 from the City of Bainbridge Island; $8,600 from the Kitsap County Surface and Stormwater Management Program; and $6,000 in assistance from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Those organizations will work in partnership to perform the work over the next two years.

The Port Orchard Passage, the waterway between Bainbridge Island and Illahee, will be the focus area. The investigation will include approximately 12 miles of shoreline, five on the Bainbridge side, and the rest from the Brownsville Marina to Illahee State Park on the mainland. Much of this area is currently labeled as “prohibited” by the Washington State Department of Health (WSDOH) after taking water samples  in 2009 and finding bacteria violations.

The primary instigators for contamination are failing sewage systems and improperly handled animal waste from sources such as small agricultural farms, livestock or poor pet care, said Richard Bazzell of the Kitsap Health District.

The plan is to kick-off the project with four shoreline surveys, and a walk through the prohibited areas of beach to sample every freshwater source and trace the bacteria to each drainage outflow upland. When elevated levels of bacteria are found they will be sourced and removed, said Bazzell.

Ensuring Bainbridge waters are healthy enough for shellfish harvesting is important not just for the health and tastebuds of the people who want to eat them. The shellfish are also filter feeders, which are capable of siphoning through more than 50 gallons of water daily and extracting nutrients that create algae blooms.

There are some 42,000 acres of land that are prohibited from shellfish harvesting in the state. The classification descriptions range from approved to prohibited, and over the last few years several island locations have been closed and reopened.

“Bainbridge Island is fairly typical for commercial growing areas,” said Scott Berbells of the WSDOH. “We have uncovered problem areas where bacteria causes us to close to avoid potential health hazards.”

Most of the shellfish growing areas located on the island are in the Port Orchard Passage and the eastern side of the island,  Berbells said.

According to a press release issued by the city on Tuesday, the Manzanita geoduck tract of the Port Orchard Passage commercial shellfish growing area was temporarily closed due to a paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxicity sample taken from the Manzanita tract on Feb. 28. The sample had a PSP concentration of 236 micrograms.

The National Shellfish Sanitation Program requires that growing areas be closed when PSP toxin concentration reach 80 micrograms. The tract was reopened on March 14, as further testing revealed there wasn’t a threat.

PSP is a naturally-occuring toxin called a “biotin” that is produced by some species of microscopic algae. PSP can concentrate in shellfish and when eaten can cause severe illness and sometimes death.

“It is more than possible to turn these situations around,” said Peabody. “It has been done in other areas of the Puget Sound where many thought it wasn’t possible. The areas we are talking about are places where people live and we are just hoping that they embrace this. When you are able to eat shellfish from your backyard we think that provides the right kind of incentive to help.”

The Puget Sound Restor-ation Fund worked with a host of other partners to create the island’s first  “community farm” on a site leased by Bloedel Reserve. The small farm began in the fall of 2009 and produced its first harvest in 2010, and is capable of producing 18,000 oysters and 250 pounds of Manila clams.

Peabody said the organization hopes to encourage people to see the value in paying attention to water health, and reward those who get involved.

“There are lots of things we can do as residents and as a community to address different kinds of pollution sources that effect harvest shellfish,” said Peabody.

The Kitsap County Health District will hold a public meeting on the project from 6:30-8 p.m. March 31 at the Bainbridge Island Commons, 370 Brien Drive.


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