THE FACTS ARE IN: WATER QUALITY IN WHATCOM COUNTY IS IMPROVING
Evidence mounts for non-farming sources of existing contamination
Fishtrap Creek at the US Canada border. This creek originates in Canada and flows into the Nooksack river after passing numerous dairy farms and through the City of Lynden. Major contamination comes across from Canada. Water quality near dairy farms is typically much better than in Lynden. Recent DNA testing confirms that while bird and non-cattle ruminant (such as sheep and deer) DNA was found in the river and Bellingham Bay, no cattle DNA was found. All evidence points to sources other than our dairy farms as major concerns for water quality.
EPA DNA study in Nooksack basin documenting DNA found including no indication of cattle DNA
EPA “guidance” document saying results show no cattle DNA presence, too little to measure, or tests are faulty
Ecology aquifer study documenting decreased nitrate levels in groundwater
Ecology presentation on groundwater improvement
Whatcom Conservation District report to Whatcom County showing improving water quality, decreased fecal coliform
NOAA letter noting farmer stewardship and improving habitat and fish recovery
Whatcom County water quality report for July 2017 showing areas of high bacteria
Dr. Kevin Lindsey’s study analyzing Ecology data that show decreased nitrate levels in groundwater
Whatcom Family Farmers Press Release
Improving Water Quality Demonstrates Real Environmental Leadership in Whatcom County
DNA testing currently shows no evidence of contamination from cattle; reduced nitrate levels show lagoons and nutrient management are working to improve groundwater quality
(LYNDEN, WA) Farmers are cheering more and more good news about improving water quality in the Nooksack river watershed. Most significant is the result of DNA tests in the Nooksack river and Bellingham Bay that revealed no evidence of contamination from cattle. The tests were conducted by the EPA in conjunction with the Lummi Nation.
More positive news came from Department of Ecology testing of groundwater in the Sumas-Abbotsford aquifer which lies under farm country in northern Whatcom County. Ecology reported that nitrate levels are declining or remaining steady in 24 of 25 wells tested. Nine wells showed decreased levels of nitrate, fifteen remained the same and only one showed increased nitrate. In a November 8 Capital Press report on the study, the Department of Ecology’s Barbara Carey, who has taken part in monitoring the aquifer since 1995, agreed manure lagoons and manure-management plans implemented in the past two decades may be working.
Upon learning of the nitrate study results, Whatcom Family Farmers retained a licensed hydrogeologist from Kennewick, Washington to do an in-depth analysis of the data. The analysis of groundwater nitrate data from 39 wells in the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer came directly from the Washington State Department of Ecology Environmental Information Management (EIM) database.
“My team evaluated 39 wells with a good long-term data record using a long-term Mann-Kendall trend analysis,” said Dr. Kevin Lindsey of EA Engineering, Science and Technology, referring to a specific analysis method used for trend analysis of environmental data. “The data was straightforward in this case. Out of the 39 wells, 35 showed decreasing trends or no trend. 17 were decreasing, 18 had no trend. Of the other 4 wells, trends were increasing. Three of these four wells have short data records–with the most recent data from 2005.” Dr. Lindsey’s study was funded by Whatcom Family Farmers through a dairy industry grant.
Nitrate and bacteria in water are the prime sources of water quality contamination. Bacteria levels, generalized as fecal coliform, also shows decline. In an August letter to Mark Personius, assistant director of Whatcom County Planning, Meg Harris of Whatcom Conservation District and Erika Douglas of the Whatcom Clean Water Program reported, “Average fecal coliform concentrations (geometric mean) have decreased over the past 12 months compared to the past 36 months at 17 of 19 monitoring sites, indicating improvements in water quality at these sites.”
The improvements in bacterial contamination are especially important to the Lummi Nation and Whatcom farmers because of the Portage Bay Partnership aimed at reducing the contamination that prevents the Portage Bay shellfish beds from reopening to tribal harvest. The DNA testing in Bellingham Bay and the Nooksack river showed low levels of DNA from ruminant and avian sources as well as undetermined sources. Ruminant refers to animals that chew their cud including sheep, goats and deer. The report stated: “Analyses with the cattle, dog and human biomarkers revealed no fecal material from these sources was detected within any of the samples.” The EPA pointed out in their report that these results may be because no cattle DNA is in the river, or the amount of cattle DNA is too low to detect or their tests are unreliable.
Water quality monitoring in Portage Bay by the Department of Health also shows declines in the contamination that has restricted shellfish harvesting to a few months out of the year. The Department of Health is doing additional testing to confirm these results, and if positive, the shellfish beds may re-open for most of the year.
Dairy farms have been the focus of attention on water quality, but berry farms also are involved. A letter from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to Whatcom Conservation District noted the positive impact of farmer stewardship in reducing issues related to pesticides: “My staff saw firsthand the results of more than ten years of planting vegetation alongside drainage ditches adjacent to raspberry and blueberry fields. The many miles of hedgerows have improved habitat conditions for salmon. We even saw a few juvenile salmon in the adjacent waterways.”
“It is now beyond dispute that we are seeing improving water quality,” Fred Likkel, Executive Director of Whatcom Family Farmers said. “The results show what we have been saying all along, that the assumption that dairy farms are causing shellfish contamination and groundwater problems is simply wrong. We hope those continuing to pursue lawsuits and massive new regulations against our dairy farms will wake up to what the data are saying and stop their false accusations.”
Fecal coliform bacteria come from a variety of sources that includes warm blooded animals and sometimes bacteria that occur naturally in soils. Monitoring in the northern Whatcom County has consistently shown urban stormwater runoff and contamination from Canada as the primary sources. Septic systems are also a known cause of bacterial contamination as well as nitrate contamination. The primary concern about bacterial contamination is in shellfish as they filter water and the bacteria can accumulate with the risk of human illness when shellfish are consumed.
While bacterial contamination can be addressed relatively quickly once specific sources are identified, not so with nitrate contamination. About 25% of wells in areas where farming has been done over the years are higher in nitrate than the 10 parts per million that the EPA currently allows. In addition to nitrate in the soil, previous heavy application of manure or fertilizer plus irrigation or heavy rainfall contribute to nitrate in groundwater. While nitrates are very important to making crops grow, farmers now understand the impact of over-application and farmer stewardship combined with effective regulations are showing that nitrate levels cannot only be stabilized but actually reduced.
Today’s anti-farm activists frequently point to nitrate levels in groundwater as a crisis caused by current farm activities. Farm practices in the past included heavy application of commercial fertilizer and manure to maximize crop growth. The heavy rains in Western Washington and heavy irrigation in Eastern Washington have left nitrate in the soil and in groundwater. About thirty years ago, farming practices changed as a result of improved understanding of this impact. But, it takes years of minimizing nitrogen applications to see a result in reduced levels of nitrate in the soil and groundwater. This was clearly demonstrated by an in-depth study by the University of Waterloo in Canada. A report on this study stated:
“After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that, after taking increasing crop yields into account, net nutrient inputs within the Grand River Basin have actually been decreasing since the late 1980s. Despite these decreases, however, water quality has been slow to respond in many areas of the watershed, with time lags on the order of 20–30 years.”
Complicating the nitrate contamination issue further is the growing scientific consensus that the concerns about nitrate in groundwater and health risks are mistaken. Science reports from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an EPA scientist have provided solid evidence that the link to health risks from cancer and blue baby syndrome are false. The anti-farm critics using nitrate contamination as a basis for attacking farms are ignoring this growing body of evidence. As the EPA still limits the nitrate levels in groundwater to 10 parts per million, farmers will continue to work hard to minimize nitrate contamination.
“We are greatly encouraged by the Ecology report on lower nitrate levels,” said Mitch Moorlag with Edaleen Dairy and Whatcom Family Farmers . “It demonstrates what we have been saying all along that the work farmers are doing through stewardship and compliance with regulations is paying off.”
“This is very positive, and encourages us to continue and even expand our efforts to be real environmental leaders,” said Brad Rader, president of Whatcom Family Farmers. “It is so important to us, even while some in our community continue to threaten our future by pushing for massive regulations, that the community understands what we are doing and the progress we are making.” Rader pointed to the stream augmentation project on the Bertrand creek which, along with farmers converting their water rights, has resulted in higher than natural levels of water in the fish bearing stream at the times of lowest flow. “Just one more example that we are serious about water quality, habitat and fish recovery and we will continue to do all we can to make this community a great place to farm as well as to live.”