Protecting and restoring shellfish beds throughout Puget Sound

Aerial photo of Samish Bay shellfish beds, showing horizontal and diagonal lines of shellfish growing areas in Puget Sound water, with Samish Island in the background. One of the areas focused on protecting and restoring shellfish.
Aerial photo of shellfish beds in Samish Bay. Photo courtesy of Skagit County Public Works - Natural Resource Division.

Recovering Puget Sound is a complex, long-term process that involves many important partners working together on projects throughout the ecosystem.

One of those partners is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Puget Sound is one of 28 estuaries of national significance in the country and part of the EPA’s National Estuary Program.

EPA supports recovery of Puget Sound through the National Estuary Program and the Puget Sound Geographic Program. EPA provides funding and support to ensure clean and safe water, protected and restored habitat, thriving species, and a vibrant quality of life for all.

In 2012, the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council established three initiatives to tackle multiple issues key to Puget Sound recovery: Stormwater, Habitat, and Shellfish.

To manage this effort, partners assembled into three Strategic Initiative Lead (SIL) teams, charged with bringing people and ideas together to improve the water, habitat, and communities. The Action Agenda for Puget Sound guides the work of the SIL teams.

Standing next to a creek, a technician in red jacket and black waders pours water from a container into lab bottles.
Pouring automated water samples into lab bottles near Cranberry Creek. Photo courtesy of Squaxin Island Tribe.

The Shellfish SIL recently awarded $5.5 million in Puget Sound Geographic Program funds to projects throughout the region to accomplish the following key goals:

  • Fund and establish effective local and tribal pollution identification and correction programs.
  • Manage and control fecal pollution and disease-causing bacteria and viruses from onsite sewage systems (septic systems).
  • Assist and educate farmers to help them voluntarily reduce livestock and animal manure runoff. Support regulatory programs to effectively require compliance.

“Washington’s marine waters are a dynamic and vital part of our unique ecosystem,” said Todd Phillips, Office of Environmental Health and Safety director at the Washington State Department of Health. “We applaud the efforts of each award recipient for their role in water quality improvement and protection. Partnerships with these awardees, along with agencies such as the EPA, emphasize the commitment and importance of advancing our goal of reducing fecal coliform pollution and protecting Puget Sound shellfish growing areas, with the overarching objective of protecting public health.”

A brown and white cow stands next to a wooden fence with barbed wire that keeps it from entering a nearby stream.
New fencing creates a buffer between livestock and a nearby stream. Photo courtesy of Skagit County Public Works - Natural Resource Division.

Since 2011, over $43 million of EPA’s Puget Sound Geographic funds have supported similar priorities to keep shellfish safe to eat. Here are a few recently funded projects:

Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Nutrient Management program

Reducing manure impacts to water and building climate resiliency on livestock farms

Through trusted partnerships, the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s (WSDA) Dairy Nutrient Management program and partners will:

  • improve manure and nutrient management planning;
  •  develop strategies to learn from outcomes and change practices; and
  • build flood preparedness on livestock farms to support clean water.

WSDA has proposed a three-year project focused on north Puget Sound shellfish watersheds. In the Puget Sound region, intense rain events are happening more often and the changing climate patterns affect shellfish safety. Livestock farmers who manage manure must adapt to farming conditions involving shorter periods of intense rain and increased flood frequency, while preparing to be able to make real-time decisions during the rainy season to prevent pollution.

Photo of Kyrre Flege, manager of the Washington State Department of Agriculture's Dairy Nutrient Management program, walks past a manure lagoon on a farm, trailed by a brown dog.
Kyrre Flege, program manager of the Washington State Department of Agriculture's Dairy Nutrient Management Program, inspects a dairy manure lagoon. Photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Agriculture.
(l to r:) Michael Insensee, operations and compliance manager with the Dairy Nutrient Management Program, and AJ Mulder, Southwest region specialist with the Dairy Nutritent Managament Program, inspect a manure application area. Photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Skagit County Public Works

Samish and Padilla Bay pollution identification and correction

Skagit County has been reducing pollution in Samish Bay since 2010. The county has addressed all large sources of pollution; it’s now working to find and fix smaller sources. This project supports pollution-source identification work using a combination of lab testing, cheaper and faster Coliscan testing (which detects fecal pollution), and water-level loggers to identify illegal discharges. Skagit County will also collect storm data in the Samish River watershed and in Samish Bay. Storm data from the watershed tells the county where it should focus its efforts.

Many sources are hard to pinpoint with source identification work, so outreach is a critical part of these efforts. An analysis identified several barriers for residents. The county will address these barriers by:

  • Offering residents temporary solutions while the county works on permanent ones.
  • Sharing costs for permanent solutions.
  • Creating opportunities for community members to meet regulators and learn more.
  • Making pollution-reducing behaviors a regular part of life so that it’s just “what we do.”

Previous Puget Sound Geographic Program funding has helped Skagit County develop its water quality program. Since 2008, Skagit County and its Clean Samish Initiative partners have worked to reduce bacteria levels in the Samish watershed by 60 percent and are working to ensure that the county’s rivers, creeks, and beaches are safe for residents to fish from and swim in.

A new bin for sheep manure constructed at a farm near the Samish River. The covered storage will help precent nutrients and bacteria from leaching into the river and provides a healthier environment for sheep. Photo courtesy of Skagit County Public Works - Natural Resource Division.
A water bottle with a PoopSmart sticker on it sits next to a green hand shovel at Whistler Pass in British Columbia.
The PoopSmart campaign, sponsored by Skagit County Public Works, helps keep water clean for people, pets. agriculture, and fish and wildlife. Skagit County Public Works gives away PoopSmart stickers at outreach events. The photo shows a PoopSmart sticker on a water bottle at Whistler Pass in British Columbia.

Mason Conservation District

Mason County partnership for clean water

Local partners participating in the Mason County Clean Water District have organized to protect and promote water quality. Partners include Mason Conservation District, Mason County Environmental Health, and the Squaxin Island Tribe. With this project, partners aim to reduce fecal pollution effects on shellfish growing areas. Seven of the 18 threatened shellfish growing areas identified in 2022 exist within Mason County. The county contains 25,365 total shellfish growing acres. It is key for local industries and tribal partners to mitigate water quality concerns that threaten:

  • a tribally and culturally significant resource;
  • the local economy—including many jobs; and
  • recreational opportunities that draw people from around the region.

This project will give technical assistance to residents in the affected watersheds and will continue an education and outreach campaign through mailers, workshops, and public meetings.

A photo of people working to plant trees and other vegetation near a creek running through farmland.
Mason Conservation District crew working on a forested riparian buffer on a farm in Mason County. Photo courtesy of Mason Conservation District.
A member of the Mason Conservation District restoration crew helps install an exclusion fence to keep livestock from entering a stream in Mason County. Photo courtesy of Mason Conservation District.

Jefferson County Environmental Public Health

Cost share for septic system repair

Jefferson County Environmental Public Health’s cost-share program with Shellfish SIL 1.0 funds offered qualified applicants financial assistance with repair or replacement of their septic system.

The cost-share program granted up to 100 percent of the cost of the repair or replacement of an onsite sewage system, up to $20,000, for homeowners who:

  • qualify under income guidelines;
  • own property near the shoreline or near a stream that drains to the shoreline; and
  • have a septic system that is failing or has failed.

This program helped residents stay current with septic inspection and make repairs as needed, which benefits homes and all those who share the waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound.

Jefferson County Environmental Public Health is working hard to keep 230 miles of shoreline safe for recreation and 18,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds and 40 recreational shellfish beds healthy for growing shellfish.

Photo of an excavator digging a new drain field for a residential septic system.
A contractor installing a new drain field for a homeowner. Photo credit: Washington State Department of Ecology.

Current funding opportunity

The Shellfish SIL has a request for proposals open now for Puget Sound Geographic Program funding. The new funding opportunity focuses on helping wastewater treatment plants make improvements and modifications; these improvements will help re-open shellfish beds near outfalls (where treated water enters a body of water) and reduce emergency closures that prevent shellfish harvest. The request for proposals is open until May 31, 2023, and more information is available on the Shellfish SIL funding page.

“Following state and federal standards, the Department of Health (DOH) prohibits shellfish harvest adjacent to WWTP outfalls,” said Scott Berbells, Growing Area section manager at the Washington State Department of Health. “There are modifications that can be made at the treatment plant or outfall that may help reduce these Prohibited areas and allow harvest. We’re excited about this funding opportunity to support shellfish bed recovery.”

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Making Waves is the Puget Sound Partnership’s online magazine. Making Waves features stories from the people protecting and restoring Puget Sound.