The Whatcom Creek watershed is in northwest Washington and flows through Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham. Whatcom Creek is fed primarily by Lake Whatcom and empties to the marine waters of Bellingham Bay. Whatcom Creek has four primary tributaries including Hanna, Fever, Cemetery, and Lincoln creeks. Whatcom Creek is a popular place for recreation, even though existing bacteria concentrations in the tributaries and lower reach of Whatcom Creek could pose a human health risk from recreational contact in the water.
Approximately 90% of the watershed is zoned as urban, including the urban growth area. Land cover includes parks, open spaces, and urban uses such as residential, commercial, and light industrial.
Water quality issues
Fecal coliform (FC) and Escherichia Coli (E. coli) are bacteria common in human and animal waste. These bacteria may cause illness in humans who contact the water or cause the closure of shellfish harvesting beds. Bacteria can pollute waters from improperly functioning municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s), from improperly functioning septic systems, and from illicit discharges, livestock, pets, and wildlife.
The greatest E. coli pollution reductions are needed in Fever Creek, followed by Lincoln, Hanna, and Cemetery creeks. The downstream reach of Whatcom Creek requires pollution reductions of both E. coli and fecal coliform.
What we have done
Whatcom Creek has been listed as impaired for FC bacterial pollution since 1996. The City of Bellingham partnered with Ecology in 2002 to conduct a watershed assessment to develop a fecal coliform bacteria TMDL to address impaired 303(d) listed water bodies. A follow up technical report provides an analysis of ambient data collected from 2004 through 2018. Since 2004, Whatcom Creek bacteria trends generally display significant improvements in water quality, however, still exceed water quality standards. We are using these data to develop reach-specific fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria loading capacities for each tributary, and estimated load reductions necessary to meet these capacities. We work with interested parties including the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Washington State Department of Transportation.
Why this matters
High levels of bacteria pollution in streams and lakes are a risk for disease to humans and animals that are exposed to contaminated water. The state is required to protect the “most sensitive” beneficial uses found in water bodies, which include the ability to wade, swim, and fish in lakes, rivers, and streams.
How can you help?
We're working with a wide range of partners to address the bacteria contamination problem in the watershed. Everyone can be a part of improving water quality conditions. Some key actions that group and individuals can take to help reduce bacteria include:
- Pick up your pet waste.
- Do not litter sewage waste.
- Have septic systems inspected regularly to avoid pollution and costly repairs.
- Improve stormwater management practices.
- Modify livestock management practices to eliminate contaminated runoff.
- Protect existing streamside vegetation, and plant new vegetation where possible to help filter contaminated runoff.
Here are some contacts and resources to get you started: