Whatcom Creek bacteria TMDL

Whatcom Creek and its freshwater tributaries have high levels of bacteria. For this reason, Whatcom Creek and four of its tributaries are on the Washington state list of impaired water bodies, known as the 303(d) list. We partnered with local stakeholders to address the sources of bacteria pollution and make the water safe and healthy again. We're developing a Whatcom Creek water quality improvement report known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.

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 and Escherichia Coli (E. coli) are bacteria common in human and animal waste. These bacteria may cause the closure of shellfish harvesting beds or cause illness in humans who contact polluted water. 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.

Cleanup plan for Whatcom Creek

We developed the Whatcom Creek Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) water cleanup plan. We submitted the plan to EPA for approval on July 27, 2023. EPA approved the plan Sept. 14, 2023. This water quality improvement report and plan adresses high bacteria levels in Whatcom Creek as well as the four primary tributaries that drain into Whatcom Creek including: Hanna, Fever, Cemetery, and Lincoln creeks. Once finalized and implemented, this plan should ensure safe conditions for swimming and other recreational activities.

We received feedback on our draft plan

We held a public comment period from March 30, 2023 through April 30, 2023, on the draft Whatcom Creek Bacteria TMDL. We included our responses to comments as an appendix to the final report we're submitting to EPA.

What we've done

Whatcom Creek has been listed as impaired for fecal coliform 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 provided 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're 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 partners including the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Washington State Department of Transportation. Addressing the variety of pollution sources requires this partnership and participation from public and local business members.

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 you can 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 groups 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: