Water-quality inspectors for the Kitsap County Health District have gained a statewide reputation for the methodical way they track down bacterial pollution in Kitsap County.
Monthly testing of nearly 60 local streams gives them an early warning about pollution problems as they begin to develop.
Working with property owners who care about the environment and voluntarily open their homes for dye testing is a major part of the success. These friendly water-quality detectives avoid using the heavy hand of government unless there is an obvious problem that a property owner refuses to correct.
Yesterday, the health district released its annual Water Quality Monitoring Report, which includes a description of every watershed and major stream in the county. The report also compiles the data to show us which streams are the cleanest and dirtiest.
As you can see from a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun, these health inspectors have encountered a water-quality situation in the Lofall area of North Kitsap that has puzzled them for more than a year. It will take their ingenuity and persistence to figure it out.
I spent a little time yesterday with Newton Morgan of the health district to try to gain an understanding of the problem. He showed me where Lofall Creek comes down through a pipe and spills into Hood Canal adjacent to the old ferry dock.
This is where more bacteria are concentrated than in any natural waterway in the county. It is somewhat of an anomaly, because Hood Canal streams are generally far cleaner than those draining to the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula.
It doesn’t take long for me to understand why Lofall remains a pollution mystery. The pipe that drains to Hood Canal is at least 100 feet long and is buried under people’s yards where the steep hillside is somewhat terraced.
Farther uphill, a drainage system takes stormwater off paved streets and dumps it into a series of catch basins that drain to other buried pipes.
Standing on one street, Newton points downhill while explaining that one pipe apparently goes directly under someone’s house before tying into another pipe that cannot be seen.
Leslie Banigan, another water quality expert with the health
district, describes the maze of underground pipes as buried
Complicating the situation even more are the high groundwater levels in some areas of Lofall.
When a septic system fails — which generally means the bacteria are not being trapped in the soil — the polluted water can find its way into this underground drainage system rather than rising to the surface where the odor of sewage reveals the problem.
Health inspectors have located some failing septic systems and even a couple of direct discharges of sewage to the beach. But they are still looking for one or more septic systems that must be getting worse, because the stream is getting dirtier, despite the repairs.
Because of their experience over the past 15 years, these inspectors exhibit a confidence about their ability to find the sources of pollution. They know they must remain persistent and continue to work on the problem. If dye testing doesn’t work, they have other ideas up their sleeves.
After watching this program all these years, I can’t help but wonder why every stream in the state isn’t being monitored monthly to establish cleanup priorities. And, while health officials are focused on bacterial pollution, similar testing could be extended to other pollutants that can harm salmon and other sealife.
Cost? Yes, there’s a cost. Residents of unincorporated Kitsap County pay about $67 a year on their property tax statements for the Kitsap County Surface and Stormwater Management Program, which is managed by Kitsap Public Works. That fee covers not only water-quality testing but also maintenance of public storm drains, upgrade of regional stormwater infrastructure, regulatory oversight of stormwater permits, education of livestock owners and commercial business operators, and more.
One of the best overviews of the program was put together in 2005 by the Puget Sound Action Team, now absorbed into the Puget Sound Partnership. Download “Kitsap County Surface and Stormwater Management Program: A Case Study” (PDF 1.3 mb).