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Tests confirm B.C. waters contaminated Nooksack River

Bacteria counts were more than 200 times water quality standards

Whatcom County farmers called foul after water quality tests showed high levels of bacteria flowing into rivers and streams from north of the border.
Whatcom County farmers called foul after water quality tests showed high levels of bacteria flowing into rivers and streams from north of the border.
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

British Columbia’s environmental ministry has identified several sources of pollution flowing south into Washington’s rivers and streams, contributing to extremely high levels of bacteria and low water quality in the Nooksack River. 

The ministry identified “multiple sources of poor water quality,” including a compost facility in Abbotsford, it told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

Runoff and discharge from a variety of facilities contributed to high bacterial pollution — 260 times the allowable limit — discovered in winter and spring tests conducted by the state Department of Agriculture and the Whatcom County Public Works department. 

Testing in December 2022 and January 2023 documented bacterial counts “in excess” of 20,000 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water at the Pepin Creek border site north of Lynden, according to a report from the Whatcom Clean Water Program (WCWP) Partners, a partnership of local, state and federal agencies working to improve local water quality. Washington’s permitted limit is 200 fecal coliform bacterial counts per 100 milliliters of water. 

Those test results riled Whatcom County farmers, who called on Gov. Jay Inslee, B.C. Premier David Eby and multiple Washington state agencies to identify and stop the flow of bacterial pollution in June. 

“Immediate action is imperative on this subject,” Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers and Larry Stap, president of the North Lynden Water Improvement District, wrote in a joint letter. “Our experience here in Whatcom County has shown that water contamination this severe only comes from direct discharges to waterways.”

B.C.’s environmental ministry told CBC it is reviewing permits for discharge limits for several operations in the watershed, but pointed to several other possible pollution sources that could impact the Nooksack River. 

“It is important to note there are multiple potential sources of the poor water quality in the Nooksack tributaries,” the province said. “We continue to monitor and address water quality in these shared waterways in collaboration with state and federal U.S. agencies.”

High levels of fecal bacteria pollution have plagued Whatcom County waters for years, where local commercial and tribal shellfish beds have been shut down to harvest over health risks, and endangered salmon struggle to spawn in polluted rivers and creeks. 

The WCWP formed in 2012 in an effort to reduce that fecal bacteria pollution, and saw significant successes, reopening previously closed shellfish growing areas and developing cross-border partnerships. 

In recent years, though, the group reported “backsliding” of water quality improvements, and Whatcom County farmers say they’re feeling the effects.

“Our farms cannot exist without water, and clean water is essential for fish recovery and our entire community,” Likkel and Stap wrote in June. “We see this as part of the larger issue of clean, sustainable, and certain water for the future of our farms.”

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