In a June 5 memorandum, the Whatcom Clean Water Program, a partnership of federal, state and local governments, detailed concerns about pollution from BC entering Whatcom County streams at the international border, causing “alarmingly higher” levels of pollution than seen in other nearby areas in the Nooksack River watershed.

This memo followed a letter from Whatcom Family Farmers and the Lynden Watershed Improvement District bringing these problems to light (Full letter here, press release here).

This is the memo’s full text:


To: Tom Buroker, Washington State Department of Ecology,

Todd Hass, Puget Sound Partnership

From: Whatcom Clean Water Program Partners

Date: June 5, 2023

RE: Transboundary Water Quality Concerns

The Whatcom Clean Water Program (WCWP), a partnership of local, state, and federal agencies and organizations working to improve water quality in Whatcom County, is writing to urgently request your support in re-establishing resources in British Columbia (BC) to quickly identify and resolve fecal bacteria pollution discharges observed at the international border. The WCWP requests assistance working with BC to achieve the following:

A process for BC to respond to reports of high counts entering U.S. waters: A complaint system with an action plan to locate and resolve sources of pollution originating in Canada. Currently reports are made through the Report all Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) complaint line but very limited resources are available to identify and fix the source.
Dedicated resources for proactively improving water quality in transboundary watersheds:
Establish an ongoing program to identify and correct preventable fecal bacteria sources. Encourage a multi-faceted approach with technical assistance, resources, and a process to achieve compliance when violations are documented. Fecal bacteria sources are diverse and water quality improvements are not sustainable without ongoing programs to engage a longterm stewardship ethic.

The WCWP was formed in 2012 to reduce fecal bacteria pollution from preventable sources and reopen shellfish growing areas to year-round tribal, commercial, and recreational harvest. Throughout the years this partnership has developed into a multi-faceted, cross-agency program that conducts ambient and source tracking monitoring, uses an incentive-based program to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners to find and fix sources of fecal bacteria, implements broad-based community outreach and engagement strategies to gain short-and long-term stewardship actions, and implements a regulatory backstop to address egregious violations and discharges. This comprehensive program promotes actions to address all preventable sources of fecal bacteria ranging from human sewage to farm animal manure to domestic pet waste and urban wildlife latrines. Through this work we have collectively achieved significant water quality improvements in the freshwater and marine systems over the years and reduced shellfish harvesting restrictions impacting Whatcom County. With multiple large sub-watersheds originating in Canada and draining to US shellfish growing areas, working with BC partners to resolve high levels of bacteria entering the United States from Canada has always been a crucial step to reaching our shared water quality goals.

From 2018-2021, the BC-WA Nooksack River Transboundary Technical Collaboration Group (TCG) was a model for the strong relationships that can be built and work that can be completed through a transboundary partnership. Dedicated resources, consistent communication, and a focus on the Fishtrap, Pepin, and Bertrand watersheds led to noticeable improvements in downstream water quality during this time. However, the three-year TCG project ended in July 31, 2021. In the absence of resources to address point and nonpoint sources of fecal bacteria, we have observed backsliding of water quality improvements over the past two years. Most recently, the reassignment of our primary BC contact to other temporary assignments has greatly reduced our ability to communicate and receive a response or follow-up to abnormally high fecal bacteria results documented over last winter and this spring.

As we continue to dedicate substantial federal, state, and local staff and resources to improve water quality in the U.S. portion of the Nooksack watershed, an added challenge to reaching our goals are recent seasonal bacteria spikes that have been documented at the border. These spikes illustrate the need for BC partners to complement these ongoing efforts with a program to address discharges in the Canadian side of the Nooksack Watershed. Results (measured at the international border in winter 2021 and 2022) were often in the tens of thousands of colony forming units (cfu/100mL) alarmingly higher than any other nearby results, and appeared to persist downstream. Intermittent bacteria spikes have continued into the spring this year. These spikes impact water quality in the Nooksack River and thus, tribal shellfish beds in Portage Bay. With very limited staff resources in BC to locate and follow up with fecal pollution sources upstream, WCWP partners are left with few tools to identify or address the cause of this recurring issue. A clear and rapid response system to address fecal bacteria discharges upstream of the international border is necessary to achieve water quality benchmarks and reopen Lummi Nation shellfish beds to year-round commercial, subsistence, and ceremonial uses.

We also recognize the Nooksack watershed and Portage Bay are not unique in their need for transboundary efforts to improve water quality and reopen shellfish beds. Boundary Bay is another area where transboundary partnerships must be supported to protect tribal, commercial, and recreational shellfish beds on both sides of the border. This is a historically important shellfish harvest area to the Lummi Nation, Nooksack Tribe, and Semiahmoo First Nation. Freshwater systems on both sides of the border discharge into Boundary Bay and marine waters circulate throughout this system. Organizations on both sides of the border collaborate through the Shared Waters partnership but have limited resources to identify and address issues.

We respectfully request your assistance to work towards the sustainable dedication of resources to resolve this issue as urgently as possible.

Note to Washington partners: Often, traditional funding sources have eligibility barriers for projects working on both sides of an international border. We need to identify creative funding sources and solutions in these regions that depend upon transboundary partnerships to be successful.

Summary of 2022/2023 Winter Discharges

Update on Whatcom County/British Columbia transboundary efforts and winter 2022-23 fecal coliform discharges

The Technical Collaboration Group (TCG), a 3-year partnership between B.C. and Whatcom County staff to improve water quality in watersheds that originate in Canada and flow to Whatcom County shellfish growing areas, ended in July 2021. Since then, a lack of resources for water quality efforts in B.C. have led to declining water quality results documented at the border over the last two years, most notably in the winter.

Since December 2022, Whatcom Clean Water Program (WCWP) partners have documented extremely high fecal coliform counts entering Whatcom County from British Columbia, specifically Pepin Brook (also known as Double Ditch in the US). These samples appear to indicate that a new or repeated discharge of pollution is large and ongoing. The source of these discharges is not known.

Sampling conditions

On 12/5, as part of routine water quality monitoring, Whatcom County Public Works (WCPW) documented counts in excess of 20,000 cfu/100mL at the Pepin Creek border sites that continued downstream (see figure 1).

On 12/5, 12/19, and 1/17 (days that the highest numbers were documented), no or very little rain fell during sampling events. Staff conducting water quality sampling have reported there have been no visual indicators of pollution (no excessive turbidity, foaming, suspended solids). Also note that on 12/5 and 12/19, samples exceeded the lab’s reporting limit and were likely much higher than 20,000 on 12/5 and 15,000 on 12/19.

Persistence downstream

These sampling events indicate that there is a noticeable and alarming downstream effect even after joining and being diluted by water meeting water quality standards. Pepin Creek flows south from the Canadian border before joining with Fishtrap Creek and then the Nooksack River (see Figure 2 for relative locations of creeks). On 12/5, samples analyzed at >20,000cfu/100mL were collected in Pepin both above the confluence with Fishtrap Creek and below, indicating that fecal coliform levels in Pepin were so high that the addition of Fishtrap Creek had no dilution effect as far as 7 miles downstream. Unfortunately, on the days the highest levels were documented, no Nooksack River sampling data was taken.

Permitted facilities in Pepin

BC Ministry of the Environment partners are pursuing inspections and compliance efforts with three permitted facilities in the Pepin Creek watershed (mushroom growing, composting, and soil blending facilities). Without bracket sampling or comprehensive Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) work, it is unclear whether these facilities are contributing to this discharge.

Ongoing efforts following TCG

Communication efforts have been largely led by WSDA, whose staff continue to submit reports to British Columbia’s Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) complaint line when high counts are documented entering U.S. waters. B.C. committed to coordinating with Whatcom County Public Works to conduct twice yearly 5-in-30 sampling in Nooksack transboundary watersheds.

Long-term effects on water quality data in Fishtrap

Whatcom County maintains a comprehensive data set for their routine ambient monitoring program in an effort to identify hot spots and locate sources of bacteria. Seasonal high counts documented over the winter and spring appear to be having an effect on Whatcom County’s freshwater monitoring data in the Nooksack watershed. See the comparisons of data below and note the significant increase in fecal coliform average between the 12-month period prior to winter 2022 discharges (Figure 3) and the 12-month period following winter 2022 discharges (Figure 4), as represented by the black dots in each graphic.