‘Massive’ bacterial counts–as much as 260 times the allowable limit–threaten shellfish, endangered salmon despite Whatcom farmers’ efforts to protect water quality in Nooksack River, tributaries

(LYNDEN, Wash.) In a new letter to Washington state, tribal and Canadian officials, farmers in Whatcom County are shedding light on a troubling trend of worsening pollution in water coming into local streams from north of the border.

Local farming advocacy group Whatcom Family Farmers sent the letter yesterday, calling for immediate action by both Washington and Canadian authorities to address what they’re calling an “urgent water quality problem.” Shortly after the farmers’ letter, a partnership of local, state and US officials released an official memo echoing their concerns.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture as well as Whatcom County government conduct routine water quality testing on streams as they enter the US from BC, and that testing has revealed bacterial pollution levels in the Canadian water as high as 260 times the allowable limit.

“These massive levels of contaminants are entering Whatcom streams from Pepin Creek in Canada and entering the Double Ditch Road stream where samples are taken at the border,” wrote Fred Likkel, Whatcom Family Farmers’ Executive Director and Larry Stap, North Lynden Watershed Improvement District President, who co-signed the letter.

“State and local officials have been aware of this cross-border contamination issue for some time,” the letter says. “We are writing because it is essential to farmers and our entire community that this be addressed soon.”

They also note that both exceptionally high and low flows in streams draining from BC watersheds into Whatcom’s Nooksack basin pose an additional risk to water quality and endangered fish. The letter points to extensive urban development just north of the border as the likely culprit.

In an official memo released following the farming community’s letter, the Whatcom Clean Water Program’s officials say BC leaders discontinued a water quality monitoring program designed to prevent pollution in the area that’s now funneling contamination into Whatcom streams. The partnership of local, state and federal agencies says it’s “writing to urgently request support in re-establishing resources in British Columbia” to curb the ongoing pollution problem.


Full letter from Whatcom Family Farmers and North Lynden Watershed Improvement District:

June 5, 2023

To Governor Jay Inslee and Honourable David Eby,

This is to call your attention to an urgent water quality problem in Whatcom County. Water contaminated with extremely high levels of bacteria is crossing the Canadian border and is draining south into the Nooksack River Basin. Given the current issues surrounding international flooding, as well as issues surrounding water rights and an impending adjudication of water rights in Whatcom County, immediate action is imperative on this subject. The implications for on-going disputes about water issues, and the complexities of management due to our location on an international boundary all point to the urgency and importance of immediate action on this issue.

The images included in this letter expose the fact that very high levels of bacteria are entering Nooksack Basin waterways through streams originating in Canada. Whatcom County as well as the Washington State Department of Agriculture conduct routine water quality testing on these streams. Water testing criteria for fecal coliform is based on a maximum 200 fecal coliform (bacteria counts) per 100 mL of water in a single sample, or 100 for multiple samples. The chart below shows numerous counts not only of 1000 FC colonies, but 10,000, 20,000 and even one sample of 52,000! These massive levels of contaminants are entering Whatcom streams from Gordon’s Brook/ Pepin Creek in Canada and entering the Double Ditch Road stream where samples are taken at the border.

A primary concern is the impact on tribal shellfish beds. The Portage Bay shellfish beds of the Lummi Nation have previously been closed due to high levels of bacteria. Improvements resulted in partial and seasonal reopening, but the continued high level of Canadian contamination poses an on-going threat to these shellfish beds and consequently to the health of those who may consume shellfish from this important and traditional harvest area.

Dairy farmers in the past have faced threats of farm-ending litigation based on the assumption that the dairy farms through which these streams pass was the primary cause. Whatcom Family Farmers worked with Lummi leaders to form the Portage Bay Partnership which included focused attention on potential farm contributions as well as funds to support restoration of the shellfish beds. We cannot let these improvements go to waste. This is an urgent and critically important issue that requires a prompt and united effort.

State and local officials have been aware of this cross-border contamination issue for some time. We are writing because it is essential to farmers and our entire community that this be addressed soon. Frankly, we wish to express our disappointment and frustration that our previous attempts at getting local, state and federal focus on this issue have resulted in no tangible progress. We recently learned that Canadian authorities have actually shut down staffing for the BC-WA Nooksack River Transboundary Technical Collaboration Group (TCG), which was responsible for monitoring and maintaining water quality on the Canadian side of the border. This action is impeding progress on this crucial issue.

It should also be noted that water quality problems go beyond fecal coliform bacteria. Streams have dropped to alarmingly low levels over the past number of years in the Gordon’s Brook/ Pepin, Fishtrap, and Bertrand streams, which originate in Canada and flow south to the Nooksack Basin. Much like the problem of Nooksack water flowing north from Everson to the Canadian border threatening Canadian interests, these water quality problems originating in Canada pose threats for border areas in northern Whatcom County as well.

Not only do we see increased flooding risk from this Canadian water in winter months, but decreased flows in the summer in these vital salmon spawning streams are also having a negative effect on our endangered salmon. Both Gordon’s Brook/ Pepin and Fishrap went dry the last couple of summers–something unheard of even 10 years ago–mostly due to changes that have occurred north of the border surrounding urban development. This, too, is a grave water quality concern for the Nooksack River Basin as low stream levels result in higher water temperatures that can prove fatal to fish.

As an initial step, we request that the governor’s office convene a meeting with key leaders from both sides of the border to determine solid, positive steps that can be taken to improve water quality. Our experience here in Whatcom County has shown that water contamination this severe only comes from direct discharges to waterways. Efforts to step up monitoring and enforcement in Canada would most likely have an immediate impact.

Our farms cannot exist without water, and clean water is essential for fish recovery and our entire community. We see this as part of the larger issue of clean, sustainable, and certain water for the future of our farms. Instead of responding to immediate threats such as this, we see slow bureaucratic processes such as the international task force on flooding, or a water rights adjudication. These take up precious time and resources while the continuing, immediate threats posed by water quality, flooding, and summer water scarcity are left to be “studied.” This is not the leadership we expect from our elected leaders.


Fred Likkel
Executive Director
Whatcom Family Farmers

Larry Stap
North Lynden Water Improvement District