North Pacific Coast beaches bacteria investigation

We partnered with the state Department of Health (DOH), Grays Harbor County, and the Quinault Indian Nation to find and reduce or eliminate significant sources of fecal coliform bacteria. Fecal coliform can cause shellfish beach closures and downgrades in parts of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growing Area, more commonly referred to as North Beach.

Water quality issues

The North Beach area extends approximately 22 miles from Ocean Shores northward to Moclips. The area is a tourist destination, a spot for recreationally harvesting razor clams, and supports Quinault Indian Nation tribal harvest treaty rights. (See study area map).

Recreational shellfish harvest areas of concern, like beaches near the mouths of Moclips River and Joe Creek, were downgraded to conditionally approved in 2011 by the DOH Office of Shellfish and Water Protection.

DOH closed popular spots for razor clam digging near Oyehut/Illahee (north end of Ocean Shores) and the area around the mouth of the Moclips River because of high fecal coliform bacteria concentrations.

What has been done

In January 2014, we gave Grays Harbor County a grant to form the North Beach Shellfish Protection District (SPD). The purpose of an SPD is to adopt a shellfish protection program to reduce or eliminate nonpoint sources of fecal coliform pollution.

To support the efforts of the SPD, we conducted a study to monitor key beach locations, significant freshwater tributaries, and stormwater ditches that could be contributing to higher bacteria levels in the North Beach area. The SPD was subsequently incorporated into the Grays Harbor County Marine Resources Committee (MRC).

We sampled both freshwater and marine water at strategic locations along the entire 22-mile stretch of beach to augment existing data from DOH, Grays Harbor County, and the Quinault Indian Nation. The goal was to identify potential bacteria sources and recommend best management practices to reduce and eliminate those sources. These will help guide the MRC and other watershed partners to reduce fecal coliform contamination in the North Beach shellfish growing area.

We conducted water quality sampling from April 2014 to April 2015 to characterize bacteria concentrations during different times of the year. Our researchers used the information gathered to find sources of high bacteria concentrations with the potential to pollute marine waters and beaches in the project area.

The 2016 data summary report identifies areas where water quality violated or met criteria for bacteria. A web map is available to view those results.

Status of the project

We are working together with the MRC and other watershed partners to eliminate or reduce human-caused bacteria sources in the North Beach area. We are doing this through:

  • Investigating residential on-site septic systems to identify and correct any not functioning properly.
  • Identifying areas which already have, or need, pet waste stations.
  • Identifying best management practices for nonpoint source pollution.
  • Developing educational material for website and hard copy distribution.
Document Type Title Publication # or Link
Data Summary Report North Pacific Coast Beaches Fecal Coliform Source Investigation Study: Data Summary 16-03-021
Focus Sheet Bacteria Study Digs Up Concerns for North Beach Shellfish Harvest Areas 16-03-024
Study Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) The North Ocean Beaches Fecal Coliform Bacteria Source Investigation Study Water Quality Study Design 14-03-108
Addendum to QAPP Addendum 1 to Quality Assurance Project Plan: North Ocean Beaches Fecal Coliform Bacteria Source Investigation Study 17-10-034
Web Map North Ocean Beaches Bacteria Source Investigation Map

Why this matters

People and animals contribute to the fecal coliform bacteria problem. Human-caused sources of bacteria can come from malfunctioning onsite septic systems, leaky sewer infrastructure, improperly managed dog and horse manure on the beach, and people who don’t use the restrooms and portable toilets provided at beach access points. Wildlife, like shorebirds, raccoons, and deer, can also contribute bacteria to the beaches.

Too much fecal coliform bacteria will keep prohibited shellfish harvest areas closed. Other harvest areas may be downgraded if steps are not taken to reduce and remove bacteria sources causing impairments. When razor clam beaches are closed due to bacteria, the local economy suffers.

We estimate that razor clam digs bring around $13.5 million in total dollars spent by diggers and their families in the North Beach area. That estimate includes money spent near the beaches on hotels, camping, restaurants, groceries, gas, shopping, gambling, and other related expenses. Future razor clam beach closures could cost the local economy $4.5 to 6 million in lost revenue.

What you can do to help

Tourism and recreational shellfish harvesting are important to the economic viability of North Beach communities. Maintaining healthy beaches and shellfish beds is everyone’s responsibility.

Clean up after your pets. Pet waste should never be left on the beach. It directly contributes to rising bacteria problems in shellfish areas. When planning your trip to the North Beach area with your pets, be sure to bring plenty of pet waste bags. After you bag your pet’s waste, be sure to throw it away in a garbage can. Be a good neighbor — if you notice someone not picking up after their pet, offer them one of your pet waste bags and encourage them to help protect the shellfish beds and be a responsible pet owner.

Clean up after yourself. Wasted food and clam gut balls left on the beach attract and concentrate birds and other wildlife. When you finish enjoying your picnic on the beach or after cleaning your clams, take the time to toss any waste in the trash.

Maintain your home’s septic system. If you own or live in a home adjacent to the beach, you have added responsibility when it comes to protecting it. Our best advice — regular maintenance, it can help you avoid costly repairs later. More information on what septic system owners can do to protest Washington waters.