Keeping beaches safe
The Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication & Health (BEACH) Program ensures that marine water is safe to swim and play in and informs the public if water doesn't meet swimming standards.
During the 2017 beach season, 62 public beaches on coastlines were sampled from Memorial Day through Labor Day. High-use beaches were sampled weekly or biweekly for enterococcus, a type of fecal bacteria. High enterococcus levels are linked to swimmer illness.
Whatcom County saltwater swimming beaches
We monitored four Whatcom County beaches weekly during the swimming season. Birch Bay County Park and Port of Bellingham Marine Park were sampled every other week from May 22 through Sept. 1, 2017. Larrabee State Park and Little Squalicum Park were sampled by Surfrider volunteers weekly during the same time period. Details on each beach are below.
Birch Bay County Park beach
We monitored Birch Bay County Park beach seven times during the sample season. Water quality at this beach was excellent with bacteria levels meeting the swimming standards during all periods sampled.
Larrabee State Park beach
This beach has had bacterial water quality problems for the past several years. A permanent swimming advisory had been in place from 2011 through 2016.
The likely source of the bacterial contamination is a raccoon latrine at the headwaters of a small stream that drains to this beach. Bacterial source-control efforts have been ongoing, including a public education effort at the park and surrounding neighborhoods.
In early 2014, raccoon access to a portion of their latrine was blocked off by laying chicken wire over the latrine area. This has appeared to be effective at reducing the volume of raccoon feces. Therefore, it is important to maintain the chicken wire to continue preventing raccoon access to the stream headwaters.
In 2017, Whatcom County Health Department and the Larrabee State Park manager made the decision to lift the permanent advisory due to water quality improving and meeting the EPA swimming standards since 2014.
During the 2017 swim season, Larrabee State Park beach had good water quality. This beach met the swimming standards for all periods sampled. On June 20 sampling results exceeded safe swim standards, but subsequent sampling showed bacteria levels had dropped to safe swimming levels. The 2017 monitoring season was unusually dry and the natural drainage (sample site WHA 034F-ND) was dry for most of the summer. As a result, freshwater input to this beach was limited to the early season.
Little Squalicum Park beach
Little Squalicum beach has consistent low to moderate bacteria levels, with occasional high bacteria spikes. A permanent swimming advisory is in place for this beach. Little Squalicum Park beach was sampled 15 times during the sample season.
During the 2017 swim season, Little Squalicum had four sampling events that exceeded the safe swimming standards. This beach met the swimming standards during all other periods sampled. Little Squalicum Park exceeded the EPA's recreational swimming standard for the geometric mean, but met the 90th percentile. Therefore, the swimming advisory will stay in place pending additional data collection at this beach. .
Port of Bellingham Marine Park beach
Port of Bellingham Marine Park beach was sampled seven times during the sampling season. Water quality at this beach was excellent with bacteria levels meeting the swimming standards during all periods sampled.
Data summary: Bacteria results compared to standards
The chart below summarizes the bacteria levels at Whatcom County beaches in relation to the EPA swimming standard or saltwater swimming criteria. Beaches are considered unsafe for swimming when the geometric mean of enterococcus/100 mL of water is greater than or equal to 35 and the statistical threshold value of enterococcus/100 mL is greater than or equal to 276. We issue a public swimming advisory when enterococcus levels reach 104 per 100 mL of water.
Table: Calculated geometric mean and statistical threshold value at Whatcom County beaches
(in enterococcus per 100 mL) for 2017
||Statistical Threshold Value
|Birch Bay County Park Beach
|Larrabee State Park Beach
|Little Squalicum State Park Beach
|Port of Bellingham Marine Park Beach