Thursday, August 14, 2014

Georgia Pacific West: where do we go from here?

By Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper

After a spirited meeting last night (Tuesday, August 12), our team again reflects on where do we go from here. 

At last night’s informational meeting, Lee First and I presented facts and information about the clean-up of Georgia Pacific West. Our goal was to educate participants about the toxics, the clean-up options, and how to make comments. Now folks are asking us whether their comments really make any difference.

The answer is maybe. Often, Lee and I have written comments which we believe to be solid, only to be rebuffed by the Department of Ecology (Ecology). We also have asked ourselves whether this work matters, and we have decided that it does. 

Good technical and procedural comments do make a difference, and we have caused change in some aspects of cleanups over the years. Is it easy? No. Does it take a lot of time? Yes. Is it worthwhile to be educated about the decisions that affect the cleanup of the sites on our waterfront? We believe it is. Is it worth your time to write a comment letter on any specific cleanup before you? It depends. Ask yourself if what you have to say is grounded in science or the law. Is your perspective unique? Do you have the time and energy to commit to understanding part or all of the cleanup? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” you should write a letter. Will it make a difference? Maybe. 

Ecology’s process is frustrating and tightly prescribed. Ecology and the Potentially Liable Party (PLP) work together to decide the potential cleanup options. Ecology’s role is to ensure that the process and cleanup are compliant with state cleanup law, the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA).

Public participation is solicited at four discrete instances, which correspond to the release of the following documents:
1)       After the Agreed Order, a legal document where the PLP “agrees” to conduct a Remedial Investigation (RI), Feasibility Study (FS) and other needed cleanup actions,
2)       After the RI/ FS, where the amount, extent, and type of the contamination are identified (RI) and where potential options for its cleanup are presented (FS),
3)       After the Cleanup Action Plan and Consent Decree, where the preferred option is further defined and a legal agreement is made committing the PLP to the cleanup, and
4)       After the Engineering Design Report, which lays out the designs and specifications needed to ensure the chosen cleanup.

The PLP usually hires a consultant to conduct the RI/FS, and a preferred cleanup alternative is also selected by Ecology in the FS. This cleanup alternative, by law, is the least expensive option which achieves cleanup under MTCA.

The real action of deciding the type of cleanup that will happen occurs between the Agreed Order and the release of the RI/FS. These are closed door meetings between Ecology and the PLP. These two parties have negotiated the cleanup, so it is not surprising that a third party, the public, often has little influence after the plan, the draft final, has buy-in from the regulator and the regulated.

This is not to say that we have no voice and no power. As I said before, we have made positive changes to cleanups. We also need to make sure that Ecology knows that we are watching and that we care.

An audience member asked, “Can we do this differently – can we make a difference before we are given the draft final proposal? Before the cleanup solution is basically a done deal?” Again, it's a maybe that we have discussed here at RE Sources before, and with so many people engaged in our cleanups and feeling frustrated with the process, perhaps we can forge a way forward together that will result in better cleanups. 

If you are interested in working on this, send me an e-mail ( and we will set up a work group for the fall to move mountains or to make the cleanup law and liable parties more accountable to citizens.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Citizens Document Decline of Sea Stars in Whatcom County

                By Wendy Steffensen

The numbers are in. The common purple (and sometime orange) sea star has declined by 85-92% in two plots in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve within 2 months, and is no longer so "common".  This rapid decline mirrors that which has been found throughout the region and up and down the coast.  Read more here:

When the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee heard about sea star wasting syndrome and the associated monitoring program, by MARINe, the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network, they wanted to know more and get trained. The Committee hosted Melissa Miner of MARINe to conduct classroom and field trainings and adopted two sites to monitor sea stars and wasting syndrome in the Reserve. 

Observing sea stars on May 17, 2014 at Cherry Point
Luckily the Committee surveyed in May, before sea star wasting syndrome really took hold in our area. In June, anecdotal reports started coming in that stars were being wiped out; the group decided to go back out and survey at the next low tide in July. The anecdotal evidence was startling, and the hard numbers backed up what beach-goers have been witnessing. Our sea stars are being assaulted by a serious disease. 

Same location on July 14, 2014 

The Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee is comprised of volunteers committed to protecting the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve through education, scientific surveys, and assessment of projects that may negatively impact the Reserve. Members of the committee were glad to assist in collecting data that will be useful to scientists, but sorely grieved to witness the death of so many sea stars. The Committee will work to host additional trainings and monitoring events, in addition to their ongoing activities. 

To learn more about the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve and Citizen Stewardship Committee, contact Wendy Steffensen at  Read more about this project here.  New members wanted!

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Report Pollution on Vacation

By Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper

Last week my family went on a camping trip to Leavenworth. We enjoyed a train trip, not too many delays, lots of good family time at the local KOA with our six year old, and hiking along the Wenatchee River.

In Leavenworth there’s a waterfront park and trail system beside the Wenatchee River, and on Blackbird Island one can explore a remnant of the town's mill days. On our first day of hiking on Blackbird Island, I noticed a small oil sheen coming from a culvert into the river.   At first notice, the sheen had no obvious source, so I tried to forget about it.  We enjoyed our hike and ate wild cherries along the trail.

On the return trip, I stopped to look at it again. There was still an oil sheen flowing into the river, but now it had been over 2 hours since I first noticed it. If the spill or leak had been truly small, with no discernable source, it would have dissipated by the 2 hour mark. I stopped, examined it more carefully, then struck up a conversation with another hiker by who took an interest; it happened he was a fireman from Kirkland.  The fireman and I couldn't find an obvious source, but I was worried that it would continue to leak and pollute the river unless I took action.

So I called 911 and spent 20 minutes on the phone reporting the oil leak. After getting transferred from 911 to 2 additional places, the Leavenworth Fire Department and park managers arrived at the island. They took it very seriously, which was heartening.   They quickly traced the source of the the leak to a failing electrical transformer just upstream of the culvert.  

My next fear was that the oil contained PCBs - an organic compound that up until the 1970s was used in small concentrations in mineral oil as an insulating medium within electrical equipment.  The Fire Department staff and park managers didn’t know how old the transformer was, or whether it contained PCBs.  I left the scene in their capable hands.  But I did go back the next day, just to check. Happy to report:  no oil sheen.

So, when is an oil sheen "actionable" ?

For me it comes down to source and size. How big is it? A drip from a vehicle, is actionable, realistically, only from the owners perspective (we'll talk about our Don't Drip and Drive campaign later this month). Lots of roadway drips usually are not actionable because the source is long gone. If you see a large slick- ask yourself these questions:  Is there an identifiable source? Is it ongoing? Is it big enough that it could be cleaned up? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you likely have an "actionable" or reportable spill.

If you reside in the City of Bellingham, report spills, leaks and pollution to the Stormwater Hotline (360) 778 7979. 

Outside of the City, the National Response Center at (800) 424 8802) go to 

You can also call us at 733-8307 and we will help you through the process, or call your local Washington State Department of Ecology office Bellingham, its (360) 715 5200. 

Happy investigating!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Get Ready for Stormwater Kids

Citizens in Bellingham are largely unaware of the effects of stormwater pollution and their contribution to it. Well, that’s about to change.  One of the Baykeeper’s newest projects is the Neighborhood Clean Water Project.  This project began last year, when RE Sources staff and interns collected data from two downtown
stormwater outfalls.  The samples showed high levels of metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from stormwater outfalls that drain downtown areas of Bellingham.   If you’re having difficulty tracking on what a stormwater outfall to the Bay looks like, here’s one of the big ones, at the terminus of C Street.

Baykeeper staff  chose to sample copper, zinc, and PAHs in stormwater because they are toxic to marine life, they are not routinely sampled by other agencies, and because they are known components of urban stormwater.  PAHs are widespread, complex organic pollutants that are found in fossil fuels, and are formed by incomplete combustion of wood, coal, and diesel fuels.  Like metals, they are common in urban stormwater and have been found in increasing concentrations in rapidly urbanizing areas.  They are carcinogenic to laboratory animals and are acutely toxic to some fish species. 

Here's our crew of university interns collecting samples from the C Street Stormwater Outfall.  We’re all smiles, but this place is not easy to access, and the water smells awful.  We sampled this spot three times, once at low tide in the middle of a cold winter night. 

Last month we held a kickoff meeting for our newest citizen engagement project called the Neighborhood Clean Water Project.  We presented our findings to a group of engaged citizens from the Columbia, Lettered Streets, and Broadway Park neighborhoods, and asked for ideas about how to reduce stormwater pollution.  We loved their ideas, and we’re running with them.

Idea #1:  Get kids involved!   No time was wasted, Columbia Elementary teachers quickly offered up 4th and 5th grade students, who  labeled 60 storm drains in the Columbia neighborhood.  The permanent markers say "NO DUMPING - DRAINS TO BAY" and in small letters is the City's stormwater hotline number 778-7979 (call this number if you observe people dumping anything but water into a storm drain). These kids worked hard, are enthused about stormwater, and their parents will soon become more educated about stormwater.  Thanks kids and beware to any parents who attempt to suds up their car in an area that drains to a storm drain. Let's get all the storm drains labeled!

Idea #2:  Recruit volunteers willing to become “stormwater stewards” in their neighborhoods.  Three volunteers have stepped forward, they’ll be headed out to talk with folks in the Columbia neighborhood about stormwater.  Prepare to become familiar with your storm drain.  Look for folks wearing bright orange vests that say “Stormwater Steward.”

Idea #3:  Present information about the Neighborhood Clean Water Project at neighborhood association meetings throughout the City.  We’re on it – we’ve been to the Padden Creek Association Meeting, we’ve got dates for two future meetings, and we’re looking for more opportunities to spread the word.

Idea #4:  Conduct “Don’t Drip and Drive Events” this summer.  These are events where volunteers provide free car leak checks.  We’re planning these events, and the City Stormwater staff will help us.  Got ideas for locations?
If you have ideas – we want to hear them.  Please consider attending our next brainstorming meeting:  Wednesday May 21, 5-6pm, at RE Sources.  For more information, contact Lee,

Monday, February 24, 2014

Volunteers Wanted for Intertidal Trainings!

If you're interested in becoming a citizen scientist, here's your opportunity! Join your Baykeeper Team for a brand new series of Intertidal Trainings in Whatcom and Skagit County. These trainings will increase your understanding of our nearshore marine ecosystems and equip you to collect meaningful survey data of plants and animals in intertidal areas.  But most importantly, you'll learn and have fun.

In 2013, over 80 local citizens became citizen scientists when they joined our training programs last year. They participated and collected nearshore monitoring data on many of our beaches.  This project was co-sponsored by friends of the Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committees with support from RE Sources' North Sound Baykeeper.

Upcoming trainings and surveys will occur both in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. Participants are welcome to attend either training series and any of the surveys, regardless of location.  But before you can participate in the fun stuff (field work, critter identification, and beach strolling) a bit of classroom training is required so that the data we collect is consistent and high quality.

Whatcom County Trainings will occur Tuesday evenings on April 1, 8, and 15th from 6-8 pm, with an optional training on sea star wasting disease on April 22. All in-class trainings will occur at RE Sources Main room.  A field training will be held at Marine Park on April 19, from 1-5 pm.  Additional field sessions will be announced.

Skagit County Trainings will be introduced on March 27, as part of the Salish Sea Stewards Training Series from 5:30-8:00, at the Fidalgo Bay Resort, Fidalgo Bay Road, Anacortes. Training will resume on Sunday April 27, from 12:30- 5 at the Fidalgo Bay Resort, with field training 1230-5 at Washington Park, Anacortes.  Additional field sessions will be announced.

Trainers will include respected professionals in the field:  Doug Stark, Michael Kyte, Wendy Steffensen, and others. Surveys will take place on low-tide days during the summer.  Interested?  Got questions?  Contact Wendy at or (360) 733 8307.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Citizens of Tenmile Watershed Rise to a Challenge!

An engaged group of citizens met at Bellewood Acres in Lynden last Wednesday evening to discuss a new project to voluntarily reduce fecal coliform pollution in the Tenmile Creek watershed.  The Tenmile Creek Clean Water Project is being led by the RE Sources’ Baykeeper team and is funded by the Rose Foundation.   Forty-two community members attended the first meeting and many of them signed up to participate in a stakeholder group.

Why are we doing this?   Fecal coliform levels have been increasing in many feeder streams in the Nooksack basin, and this effort is a forward step by citizen stakeholders to work with watershed neighbors to reduce fecal coliform levels on a voluntary basis. We decided to focus this effort in the Tenmile area because of a past success there. About 10 years ago, Tenmile Creek neighbor and co-owner of Bellewood Acres, Dorie Belisle, coordinated citizens in the Tenmile Creek watershed as they participated in a voluntary project to reduce levels of fecal coliform..  The project was a success for several years, but the creek is once again in decline.

High levels of fecal coliform in streams can cause disease, threaten agricultural viability, including downstream shellfish harvesting operations that Tribal and commercial communities rely upon.  People can also get sick from contacting water that is contaminated with fecal coliform. This trend is not unique to Tenmile Creek. 

Fecal coliform bacteria live in the intestinal tract of warm blooded animals and originate from animal and human waste.  In other words, the source is poop.  Sources could include failing septic systems, manure, birds, beavers, pet waste, and other sources.  The Tenmile watershed includes Tenmile, Fourmile, and Deer Creek.  Within this watershed are 2,642 on-site septic systems, 19 fields associated with dairies, 26 small farms, and populations of deer, waterfowl, beavers, and other wild animals.  What is the source of the poop?  Nobody knows for sure, but we’re going to do our best to find out where it’s coming from and which sources are the greatest contributors. This project is like solving a puzzle. 

After the first meeting, 20 neighbors joined us for a second meeting to start crafting solutions to the fecal coliform problem in Tenmile Creek. This stakeholder committee will work closely with RE Sources’ Baykeeper team, identifying sources of contamination and considering voluntary solutions to improve the quality of the creek. All meetings of this group are open to the public and community members concerned about their watershed are encouraged to attend.

This first meeting of the stakeholder committee brought about a number of questions that the Baykeeper Team will work hard to address before the next meeting:  Should we test for additional water quality parameters?  Should we measure stream flow while we’re out there? How do fecal coliform levels in Tenmile compare with pristine streams? What effect does sunlight, algae, and decaying leaves have on fecal coliform levels? How many samples should we collect? Should we take samples during storm events too?  What influence does Deer Creek have on fecal coliform levels in Tenmile Creek? Answers to these questions should become clearer as the project evolves.

If you’re curious about this project, you are welcomed to attend the next meeting, which is on Wednesday, December 11th at Bellewood Acres. To learn more about the project, visit  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cornwall Avenue Landfill is getting ready for a cleanup!

Ensure that the planned waterfront park and marine areas get cleaned up - come learn how to comment on the RI/FS, the decision document that will guide how the Cornwall Avenue Landfill gets cleaned up!

What:  Cornwall Landfill Public Forum & Comment Writing Workshop with North Sound Baykeeper Staff and other experts
When:  Sept 17th, 6:30pm
Where:  Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship (BUF), 1207 Ellsworth Street

 Decision-makers must consider the public’s opinion before finalizing this cleanup – your voice matters!

This cleanup is important; it is one of the first that will form the basis of our new waterfront. The cleanup will occur both on land and in the water.  Come learn about the plan and about how to make a difference through your comments.

RE Sources is offering a special opportunity to learn about the proposed cleanup options for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill.

The Cornwall Avenue Landfill is a 26-acre site on the Bellingham waterfront that has been used for sawmill operations, a solid waste landfill, and log storage and warehousing operations.  Extensive sampling across the site found potentially harmful levels of hazardous substances in the groundwater, soil, and sediment.  The site is located within the Waterfront District redevelopment area, which is currently undergoing extensive planning efforts.  Current plans call for the site to be developed primarily as a waterfront park.

The Port of Bellingham, with Ecology oversight, has just published an environmental report called A Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study. (RI/FS). This report contains a history of the site, comprehensive details about previous site investigations, a description of 4 cleanup alternatives and identifies a preferred cleanup alternative.  The public has three weeks to prepare comments on the report and the proposed cleanup option (the comment period ends on September 20th).   

We want a high quality, long-lasting cleanup that will be protective of public and environmental health.  We are concerned that the cleanup option that the Department of Ecology has dubbed, “the preferred alternative” (Alternative 2) may not be the best choice.  Because the project is on such a tight timeline and because we think it is so important for the public to get involved, we’re offering this special public form and comment writing workshop on September 17th.

For more information, view a recent presentation from the 8-28 public meeting:

The full report, “Public Review Draft Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill” is available online here:

We hope you assist our efforts us by preparing comments for this important project.  Please contact Wendy Steffensen if you want to get involved, or have questions.  Contact Wendy at or at 733 8307.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Celebrate Water Weeks - Special Events!

Celebrate the importance of our water resources by signing up for one of these free Whatcom Water Weeks events!  We’re collaborating with our partners (City of Bellingham, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Yeager’s Sporting Goods, Everybody’s Store, Refuse and Disposal Services, and the Surfrider Foundation) to offer these events.  Find out more info about Whatcom Water Weeks here:

1.  Rain Garden Bike Tour in Bellingham: Saturday September 7, 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Dust off your bike and join us for a fun ten mile ride to view rain gardens and stormwater treatment facilities in Bellingham.  This tour will primarily showcase rain gardens, but we’ll also visit some of the brand new super cool stormwater facilities installed by the City of Bellingham.  We’ll discuss pollution prevention and offer homeowners and business owners an opportunity to consider new ways to help prevent stormwater pollution on their property.

Meet us at Bellingham Technical College (BTC), at 3028 Lindberg Avenue, at 10:00 a.m. We will gather on the south side of Building G, which is next to the Campus Center.  After viewing rain gardens at BTC, we will visit rain gardens around town, as well as stormwater facilities installed at private homes at businesses, and in public right-of-ways.  We’ll travel on bike paths and side roads whenever possible, at a slow to moderate speed.  The tour will end at Western Washington University by 1:00. Participants should be familiar with safe bicycling techniques.  Children under 8 years old must be on their parent’s bike (trailer, seat, or trail-a-bike).  The route will be less than 10 miles in length.  The tour is free, but registration is required.  For more information or to register, contact, or call (360) 733 8307.

2.  Little Squalicum Creek Restoration Work Party:  Saturday September 14, 9:00 a.m. to noon.

Bring your kids and join us for a few hours of weed pulling!  We’ll remove invasive weeds, mulch new seedlings, meet new friends, and have fun.  This work is needed to ensure that the Creek and its wetlands continue to provide high water quality and habitat. 

Meet us at 9 a.m. in Little Squalicum Park near the entrance from the lower parking lot of Bellingham Technical College. This location has free parking.  Dress for weather conditions, and we’ll provide tools, gloves, and snacks.  Please bring your own water bottle.  For more information, contact Wendy Steffensen,, or call (360) 733 8307.

3.  South Fork Nooksack River Cleanup:  Saturday September 14, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 

Prepare to get dirty and work hard on this event, because there’s a lot of trash out there.  Because we expect low water levels, most volunteers will be asked to walk one or two miles along the river to pick up trash.  We’ll divide up into small groups and get ‘er done.  Canoes will be used to move the trash to the pick-up locations. Our favorite folks at RDS will pick up the trash!  Afterwards we’ll party down at Everybody’s Store.

This event requires advance registration.  To find out the details or register, contact Dylan Reese, at Yeager’s Sporting Goods.  He can be reached at, or (360) 733-1080.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rain Garden Tour de Bellingham, Saturday, June 1, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm

          By Jane Billinghurst, WSU Skagit County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Prepare to be inspired by the functionality and beauty of the diverse selection of rain gardens on this tour. From homeowner installations as part of the Lake Whatcom Homeowner Incentive Program to rain gardens in co-housing sites and at Western Washington University, you will see how these gardens can be designed to fit a variety of sites and aesthetics.

All the rain gardens on this tour work to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of stormwater that runs off roofs, lawns, and driveways in the heavy winter rains of the Pacific Northwest.

Packed with native plants to attract birds, this 
rain garden makes a lovely urban retreat - a
vast improvement over the grassy berm that used
to run along this narrow backyard.

What Is a Rain Garden? A rain garden is essentially a stormwater processing facility. It is a shallow depression that captures fast-moving stormwater and then releases it slowly into the surrounding landscape.

Stormwater Quantity: Unchecked stormwater causes flooding and erosion, and causes problems with combined sewer systems. A primary goal of rain gardens is to interrupt and slow the flow of stormwater.

Stormwater Quality: Stormwater picks up pollutants and washes them into local water bodies, and, in the case of Lake Whatcom, into a source of drinking water. Pollutants include pet waste, pesticides, and excess fertilizers from landscapes; and oil, copper, and zinc from cars. Rain gardens help remove these pollutants from stormwater.

Stormwater Processing: Even in heavy storm events, the rain gardens on this tour drain quickly. Instead of having water rushing down storm drains or along ditches, or water levels rising close to homes, rain water puddles in the gardens and then soaks into the specially designed soil
This rain garden helps process water from a co-
housing project while providing a landscape feature that is 
safe for children to play around and that attracts
beneficial pollinators for the veggie gardens beyond.
and gravel mixes through pore spaces opened up by plant roots and soil microbes. The plants and microbes then get to work breaking down or sequestering organic pollutants and heavy metals in the stormwater. A layer of mulch on exposed soil surfaces—usually arborist chips—keeps the weeds down and aids in processing and trapping pollutants.

Attractive Wildlife Habitat: Native plants adapt well to rain garden conditions and attract a host of beneficial insects and birds. Extra color and diversity can be added by including some hardy cultivated varieties of plants that enjoy growing conditions in the Pacific Northwest.
When I was checking out these rain gardens, I saw hosts of beneficial insects on columbine, camas, and spirea. There were birds perching in ninebarks and hazel, and bathing in attractively designed bird baths. Despite a few days of heavy rain (and a downpour while I was visiting!), none of the rain gardens had standing water. All were beautiful.

The plantings in this colorful rain garden with abuzz with bees.

On the Tour: Homeowners will be on hand to explain the process of installing their gardens and how they have benefited from the Lake Whatcom Home Incentive Program. Rain garden experts from the City of Bellingham and WSU Extension will explain how rain gardens work and what steps you can take if you are inspired to install a rain garden of your own.

Rain Garden Tour de Bellingham is from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm on Saturday, June 1. The $20 fee includes lunch and transportation. Register online at  The tour is co-hosted by RE Sources, City of Bellingham, Sustainable Connections, and WSU Whatcom County extension. After the tour, you are invited to stick around for the Watershed-Friendly Project Expo at Bloedel Donovan Park from 1 to 3 pm. 

To find out more about home owner incentives in the Lake Whatcom watershed, download the Homeowner Incentive Program Brochure (PDF).

To find out more about WSU Extension’s rain garden resources for homeowners, visit

All photos by Jane Billinghurst

Thursday, May 23, 2013


By Matt Schwartz, North Sound Baykeeper Intern

            What it means to be a citizen is shifting by the seaside. Largely because the seaside is under fire. ‘Oceans on Acid’, ‘Plastic Soup’ and ‘Sea Level Rising’ are familiar phrases buzzing around the media these days. Oil spills, collapsed fisheries, seabird die offs and the threat of more massive coastal development projects hardly round out the story. Nonetheless, if hope is an action that must be practiced, then alas, hope abounds on a rainy Saturday morning in Whatcom County! At Marine Park, thirty three local volunteers successfully completed field training as citizen scientists for the Aquatic Reserve Intertidal Monitoring Program. These volunteers will participate in important beach surveys throughout the summer at Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay and Boulevard Park. Between Whatcom and Skagit counties, seventy two women and men are enlisted in this project. They will be equipped with the skills to document the intertidal zone at a scientifically sound level.  By measuring beach profiles and counting intertidal plants and animals year after year, this project aims to gauge changes to our shorelines and all of its creatures.  

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.”

-Alfred Lord Tennyson

            The intertidal is hopelessly romantic…

It is a musing enchantment that pulls many of us to the seashore. When you get to know her, the intertidal is quite the fanciful dreamer. Here are some basics: tides generally operate on semi-diurnal cycles in this part of the world, as commanded by the gravitational pull of the moon (and to a lesser extent, the sun). They take two deep breaths a day. Breathe in and water drains out from all of the arms and fingers of the sea that penetrate the land- hold- and breathe out to fill them back up. On cue, tides swell and heave their way up the beach, submerging every last mussel in its path. Salty spray quenches the lichens plastered on the bedrock outcrops in the high intertidal zone. Waves lap at the cobbles below. All this effort, only to about-face and the tide slinks away like a dog with its tail between its legs, leaving all of her creatures exposed. Thousands of subdued colors bend knee to the white cloud layer so heavy it barely holds itself up. Flip over a rock (gently)[1] and you might find any number of slinkers, crawlers, creepers or oozers. Whether you sit and stare, or stand up, face the water and close your eyes, the salty breeze runs its hands through your hair, beckoning.  As Annie Dillard once said, “The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out”.

Photo credit:  Doug Stark

…And hopelessly peculiar. 

Intertidal organisms usually take their time. The mossy chiton is a good example. Suctioned to a rock you might see this beautifully designed 8-plated shell with a chinstrap beard protecting a shriveled vienna sausage. This little sausage is the chiton’s foot and it remains virtually glued to rocks like a suction cup for its whole life. The Haida (southeast Alaska native) word for chiton is Çuunçuugiiga, ‘he who lays face down forever’. Keep looking and you will find creatures at all rates and states of flux. Peek under a rock and you might find a wriggling eel-like fish having a hyper-speed seizure (the ‘rockweed gunnel’). A purple shore crab scuttles hurriedly by on her way to somewhere clearly important and that thieving hairy hermit crab just outgrew its shell and helped himself to a new one. A bit higher up in the intertidal zone, crops of greenish-brown rockweed (fucus algae) shrivel as they slowly dehydrate, waiting ever so patiently for tide to return. Once it does, check right below the surface of the water. Those acorn barnacles have just opened up- frantically waving their ghostly little feet, catching particles of food brought in by the flooding tide. Picture thousands of organisms in motion: crawling, burrowing, seeping and worming their way around the sand, rocks and lapping waves. The intertidal zone is an infinite amusement park treasure hunt that could entertain us for hours- but there is work to be done… 

Enter the Citizen Science Brigade. 

The power of citizen science is rather infinite.  The bottom line: it’s cheap, it’s local, it’s potentially everywhere. Interpreting our natural world is a job for everyone.  With specific, focused training programs, ordinary citizens can gain the skills to observe planet earth in detail. Incredible discoveries and enormous pools of credible data can be gathered by the greater populace. Take the NASA citizen scientists who recently discovered the first known four star planet. Impressive. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has been a pillar of citizen science for 113 years.  Yes.
The scene at the Aquatic Reserve field training was chock full of measuring sticks, tide markers, clipboards and rain boots. Quadrats- handheld grid squares, made of PVC and string- are placed at random locations on the beach, where volunteers analyze any plants or animals that lie inside them and count anything alive.  “Citizen science is a great idea. More eyes for better monitoring and data. The old truism is ‘to know it is to love it’. Once people know how wonderful the natural world is, the more inclined they are to protect it,” says beach naturalist Marie Hitchman, who has been observing Cherry Point since 2000 and the San Juan/Gulf Islands by sailboat since 1968.
The local intertidal surveys gather a baseline of data that will help us understand how unique each beach really is. Taking measurements and vital signs of a particular shoreline can show how it responds to change over time and to different environmental conditions.  With a solid grasp on the health of a beach and all of her critters, it is possible to gauge transformations, should an oil spill, a restoration project, or an increasingly acidic ocean happen upon her.  The truth is that numbers talk. Credible quantitative data that spells out the health of a specific marine environment can warrant important decisions, funding and actions for that area[2]. Nonetheless, as a strong group-centered effort, citizen science embodies a spirit that speaks beyond the data sets. It taps into the heart of a community. John Stockman is a local high school science teacher and co-trainer for the intertidal project. He describes citizen science as “an excellent way to get people involved in a real project. The data can be very useful to recognize slow changes in ecosystems. But we must not forget that it is not just about the data; it is also about the researchers who have volunteered to collect the data.”
This brings it back to you- the volunteer, the donor, the backbone of “what have you done for your country, lately?”. If you spoke seastar you’d know- Pisaster ochraceous thanks you.

"Intertidal Biotic Monitoring at Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay and Boulevard Park” is a joint project of RE-Sources for Sustainable Communities, the Marine Resources Committee, Washington Environmental Council, and the respective Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committees. It is complemented by the citizen science “Aquatic Reserve Bird Surveys” program.

[1] Tidepooling etiquette 101: if ever flipping over a rock do so gently. Roll the rock back over just as you found it.
[2] The Washington Department of Natural Resources and collaborating partners (see below) will be utilizing the data from this project and it will also be made available online to the public.