State finds more ‘high levels’ of bacteria off Damon Road approach


High levels of fecal bacteria found in the water north of Ocean Shores will lead to a year-round shellfish harvest closure by the state Department of Health for small part of the coast just off the Damon Road beach approach.

Just how large of an area is still being determined, but it looks likely it’ll take a full year for the state and county to figure those details out, Grays Harbor Environmental Director Jeff Nelson said. That grants a reprieve for razor clam diggers this season in that area before it ends up being closed for an undetermined length of time, Nelson said.

“We’re a little unique in a sense that, again, this is razor clams, and a lot of these regulations were designed and geared toward oysters. So there’s a sense that they’re not harvested as often and they’re eviscerated and cooked whereas oysters can be eaten raw,” Nelson said.

County Commissioner Herb Welch said he’s glad that the state is taking its time, but notes the issues on the beach have been around for more than a year now.

“It’s interesting to me that there have been no health impacts yet there’s this dire need to close the beaches to shellfish harvesting,” Welch said. “I’m concerned for tourism in those areas when the closure goes in effect.”

“This could hurt tourism big time,” County Commissioner Frank Gordon agreed.

Beyond the potential closure area, Nelson said there’s also the question of how to enforce the closure when families have been digging in that area for generations.

Last year, the commissioners created a new shellfish protection district in an effort to find ways to improve water quality along coastal beaches and stave off potential closures of shellfish harvests. The district incorporates the beaches along all of the North Beach area, including part of Ocean Shores.

A report detailing last year’s monitoring shows that the so-called Pacific Coast growing area was sampled six times in 2012 using a random sampling method, and the area right off the beach approach was the worst on that stretch of the coast. Grays Harbor County formed a shellfish protection district encompassing the entire growing area and held meetings with stakeholders, the report notes.

“The Department continues to evaluate the shoreline drainage near Marine Water Station 9 (Illahee/Oyehut area north of the Damon Rd. approach). The Conditionally Approved portion of the growing area was closed from June 1 through August 31 (2012),” the Health Department states of the local area covered in the reports. It was unclear when or for how long the closure would be in place for 2013.

Nelson said the quick assumption would be that failing septic tanks in the Illahee/Oyehut area could be causing raw sewage to get on the beach. But, he says, that doesn’t appear to be the case based on surveys the county has already done.

“That’s what people are going to assume, though,” Welch said. “Cause and effect and all that.”

“But it’s highly unlikely based off of what we know when (fecal bacteria and septic liquids) moves through sand, unless there’s a direct discharge and the drainage patterns are such that it’s highly unlikely it would be seeping through the ground and causing an impact,” Nelson said.

Scott Berbells, station supervisor for the Department of Health, said the dates of the closures still had not been set and that notifications would be sent out in advance.

“It’s just a small portion of the entire beach,” he said. “Right now, we’re evaluating the stormwater discharge onto the beach to see what size of a closure zone we’re going to have to create.”

Runoff from the area east of the beach there is the known carrier of the fecal bacteria. The ultimate cause, however, is not pinpointed.

“We certainly know what the carrier is,” Berbells said. “And the carrier is that stormwater discharge that goes onto the beach right there at the beach approach. What is causing the bacteria levels in this stormwater discharge, we don’t know yet. We’re still looking into that.”

One of the very high level recordings occurred during what Berbells said “was a pretty significant storm event.”

The first effort will be an advisory the department will issue warning people to “stay away from these freshwater discharges onto the beach,” he said.

The data will be shared with the Quinault Indian Nation, Grays Harbor County and the city of Ocean Shores before the official downgrade takes place, Berbells said.

See the Department of Health link for more information: http://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/4400/pacific.pdf

A map of the 2013 threatened areas and more information on the status of shellfish harvesting areas is available on the Department of Health website: www.doh.wa.gov