Balance and fairness to how we protect our water resources

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Last month, a berm failed at a dairy farm in Yakima Valley. Thousands of gallons of manure-contaminated water flooded nearby homes, rising a foot and a half before receding. In one video, a resident wades in water the color of chocolate milk—water polluted with fecal coliform, E. coli, and nitrates from manure on nearby fields that flooded when the berm failed. For a week, residents couldn’t use their tap water to drink, wash dishes or bathe.

Water pollution like this threatens our drinking water, shellfish beds, rivers, and beaches in communities across our state. This pollution comes from sources like stormwater runoff and industrial facilities, farms with poor manure management practices, leaking septic systems, and dog poop left on the ground.

Fecal coliform bacteria from animal waste is a major concern in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Rivers and beaches polluted with fecal coliform pose a public health risk. Fecal coliform pollution has caused decades of shellfish bed closures in Samish and Portage bays.

Nitrate pollution also poses serious risks across our state. Nitrates comes from animal waste seeping into groundwater—the only source of drinking water for many people in rural communities. When wells become polluted with nitrates, drinking the water can cause significant health conditions. The Sumas-Blaine Aquifer in Whatcom County has some of the highest nitrate pollution levels in the state.

In Yakima County, some of the poorest residents are forced to spend money on bottled water to avoid drinking from wells polluted with nitrates. Water pollution is not just an environmental issue, it’s a social justice issue that impacts poor and rural communities—people who depend on government agencies to protect their access to clean water.
RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has worked to protect water quality for decades, and we are committed to addressing pollution from all sources. Contaminated water impacts everyone, and it will take everyone to work collaboratively on solutions.

That’s why RE Sources and partners across the state recently filed a lawsuit appealing the Washington State Department of Ecology’s new permits for regulating large-scale livestock operations, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Whatcom County has the highest number of CAFOs in the state—an estimated 120 such operations. Yakima County has an estimated 60 CAFOs, but with a much higher number of cows.

Unfortunately, Ecology’s permits don’t do enough to protect our water from manure pollution. Despite receiving nearly 5,000 comments to strengthen permit provisions and uphold federal Clean Water Act requirements, Ecology instead ignored their own science, abandoned their mission to protect, preserve and enhance Washington’s waters, and caved to the pressure of Big Ag lobbyists.

In addition to pushing for better environmental regulations for all industries, RE Sources asks citizens to call on local government to do more to address water pollution—by requiring homeowners’ septic systems to be professionally inspected to ensure they don’t leak, by educating pet owners and preventing dog poop from being left in yards, on trails, and in parks, and by using best management practices to protect clean water on farms of all sizes.

We applaud those in our county who are already taking steps toward cleaning up our waters. The Portage Bay Partnership, a coalition of seven dairy farmers and the Lummi Nation, aims to reduce manure pollution from washing down the Nooksack River and contaminating shellfish beds. Thanks to the efforts of a volunteer citizens and farmers group, the Tenmile Watershed is now the county’s first lowland agricultural stream to meet both state water quality standards for fecal coliform. And in Drayton Harbor, more than two decades of dedicated cleanup work resulted in the reopening of 800 acres for winter shellfish harvesting.

We’re on the right track, but we all have to pitch in. We need proactive, science-based policies from state and local agencies that prevent fecal coliform from polluting our rivers and shellfish beds. Strong government action is also needed to stop nitrates from contaminating our drinking water and wells.

Everyone deserves a clean source of water. Viable agriculture and shellfish industries, clean drinking water and rivers—these can co-exist. But not until we have government agencies that do their jobs. As parents, farmers, recreationists and environmentalists, we’ve chosen to look the other way for too long. It’s time to bring balance and fairness to how we protect our shared water resources. Because without clean water, what’s left of our beautiful home?

Lee First is the North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. RE Sources is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the health of Northwest Washington’s people and ecosystems through the application of science, education, advocacy, and action.The North Sound Baykeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international organization working toward people’s rights to fishable, swimmable and drinkable water. For more information, visit

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