Washington State has more than 1,300 publicly accessible beaches along the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound. The state’s beach monitoring program is administered by the Washington State Department of Ecology and Washington State Department of Health’s BEACH Program.
Identifying Sources of Contamination at Wildcat Cove in Larrabee State Park
Larrabee State Park in Whatcom County is a popular park and beach used by local residents and tourists. Enterococcus levels in water samples at Wildcat Cove, a beach within this state park, have been a concern for years. On June 8, 2011, the Whatcom County Health Department issued a permanent swimming advisory for Wildcat Cove.
Efforts have been under way since 2010 to pinpoint the sources of contamination at Wildcat Cove. In 2011, the BEACH Program received additional funding through EPA’s national estuary program to allow further source identification work. Two streams flowing into the cove were found to have high levels of enterococcus, and a “hot spot” for bacteria was discovered near a wetland area at the campground bathroom facility. Park staff reported that their wastewater system had been recently updated, and the septic systems at four nearby residences were dye-tested and found to be functioning properly. The source of fecal indicator bacterial contamination at this beach is presumed to be wildlife, as numerous raccoon feces have been observed in the wetland that drains into the two enterococcus-laden streams that flow into the cove.
What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?
Due to limited funding, Washington’s BEACH program sampled only 49 beaches in 2010. This was a decrease from 73 beaches in 2009. In 2011, the program was able to increase the number of beaches sampled to 76 with BEACH Act funding supplemented by support from EPA’s National Estuary Program. Cape Disappointment State Park in Pacific County has not been monitored since 2009 because of state park budget cuts.
In 2011, Washington reported 1,371 coastal beaches. Of these, 1 (<1%) was assigned a monitoring frequency of more than once a week, 74 (5%) a frequency of once a week, 1 (<1%) every other week, and 3 (<1%) variable; 1,292 (94%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. In 2011, 6% of all reported beach monitoring samples (1,156 samples) exceeded the state’s daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2011 were Oak Harbor City Beach Park in Island County (42%); Larrabee State Park, Wildcat Cove in Whatcom County (35%); Indianola Dock (20%), Arness County Park (20%), and Pomeroy Park?Manchester Beach (19%) in Kitsap County; and Mukilteo Lighthouse Park in Snohomish County (19%). Beaches in Skagit County had the highest exceedance rate of the state standard in 2011 (29%), followed by Island (21%), Whatcom (15%), Kitsap (11%), Thurston (7%), Snohomish (5%), Jefferson (4%), Mason (3%), King (2%), Pierce (2%), and Clallam (1%) counties. There were no exceedances at beaches in Grays Harbor County, and no beaches in Pacific or San Juan counties were monitored. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
* Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2007-2011 are included in the bar chart.
What Are Washington’s Sampling Practices?
The regular sampling season runs from a week before Memorial Day to Labor Day. Monitoring was extended through October 5, 2011, for three surfing beaches in Grays Harbor County.
The BEACH Program and an interagency committee developed sampling procedures and selected monitoring locations throughout the state. This group also selected which EPA water quality criteria to apply throughout the state, developed a protocol for determining when to recommend to local jurisdictions that a notification be issued, and established practices to be observed when a notification is issued. Samples are taken in knee-deep water. Beaches are chosen for monitoring based on use and risk from nearby fecal pollution sources such as sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, pet waste, livestock waste, marine mammals, and shorebirds.
Local jurisdictions and volunteers make an effort to monitor locations near freshwater and stormwater discharges that transport bacteria into beachwater. If a beach is closed or placed under advisory, the monitoring frequency is increased until the beach is reopened. States that monitor more frequently after an advisory is issued will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.
How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2011?
Total closing/advisory days for 9 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 52% to 64 days in 2011 from 131 days in 2010. In prior years, there were 48 days in 2009, 120 days in 2008, 19 days in 2007, 294 days in 2006, and 216 days in 2005. In addition, there was one extended event (73 days) and 6 permanent events (1,795 days total) in 2011. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 9 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 42% (27) of closing/advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, and 58% (37) were preemptive to due known sewage spills or leaks.
Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park in Whatcom County, Walker County Park in Mason County, Edmonds Marina Beach South Dog Park in Snohomish County, Freeland County Park/Holmes Harbor in Island County, Priest Point Park in Thurston County, and Oak Harbor City Beach/Windjammer Park in Island County are under permanent advisory in 2012 because of elevated seasonal geometric means in 2011 or historical bacteria issues. The BEACH Program also recommended permanent advisories for Little Squalicum Park in Whatcom County and Pomeroy Park-Manchester Beach in Kitsap County because of elevated seasonal geometric means in 2011, but as of this writing these beaches have not been placed under permanent advisory.
How Does Washington Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?
The authority to close beaches and issue advisories (cautions) rests with local health jurisdictions, and whether a notification is issued when the BEACH Program recommends a notification varies from county to county. The BEACH Program applies the single-sample maximum enterococcus standard of 104 cfu/100 ml to determine whether to make an advisory recommendation. The state also recommends that a permanent advisory be posted if a beach’s seasonal geometric mean exceeds 35 cfu/100 ml or when monitoring results indicate a chronic problem. Samples are taken from three locations at each beach, and the bacterial count for the simultaneous samples is averaged before comparison with the standard.
The state recommends that a closing be issued without resampling if a sampling event reveals enterococcus levels greater than 276 cfu/100 ml. If enterococcus levels are greater than 104 cfu/100 ml but below 276 cfu/100 ml, the state recommends that the beach be resampled, and if the resample reveals enterococcus levels between 104 cfu/100 ml and 276 cfu/100 ml, the state recommends that an advisory be issued. If the resample reveals enterococcus levels above 276 cfu/100 ml, the state recommends a closure. The state recommends that beaches be posted immediately upon notice of a sewage spill that poses a threat to the beach.
Washington has no preemptive rainfall advisory standards but advises the public to avoid water contact for 48 hours after heavy rains.
Washington 2011 Monitoring Results and Notice and Advisory Days
||Assigned Monitoring Frequency
||% of samples exceeding state standards
||Closing or Advisory days