Last week I attended a bus tour through the Samish Watershed that was organized by the Washington State Conservation Commission and the Skagit Conservation District. The purpose of the tour was to view progress made since the start of the Clean Samish Initiative (CSI), which is a multi-partner project with a goal to clean up levels of fecal coliform pollution in the Samish River. Along for the ride were representatives of many state agencies including the Departments of Ecology, Agriculture, Conservation Commission, Health, the Skagit Conservation District, EPA staff, representatives of environmental groups (me), dairy farmers, cattle farmers, oyster farmers, the Cattlemen’s Association, Upper Skagit Indian Nation, local dike and drainage district managers, interested citizens, and others. Everybody was excited – we were on our way to see newly installed farm improvement projects including fences, hedgerows, barns, buffers, and other techniques that prevent mud and manure from polluting the Samish River.
The Samish River has had problems with fecal coliform pollution for decades, and has been listed on the state’s list of polluted waters for many years. The sources of fecal coliform pollution include the excrement of mammals - cows, horses, elks, deer, humans, beavers, birds, moles, voles, and mice, etc. Since excrement is not a pleasant sounding word, I’ll call it poop. I listed the kinds of poop in the order of big animals to small, because in my opinion most of the poop is coming from cows and horses. Lots of people disagree with me. Some people think it’s coming from primarily from leaking septic systems, and some people think it’s coming primarily from mice and birds. I think it’s coming from all sizes of farms, specifically from poopy pastures that drain downhill into the Samish, and into the multitudes of ditches that drain into Friday, Thomas, Colony, Edison, Swede, Parson, and the other creeks and sloughs that comprise the Samish watershed.
Whatever the source, the levels of fecal coliform are too high for safe recreation and for safe shellfish harvesting. The Department of Health automatically shuts down the shellfish beds after a heavy rain event. In the last three years, Samish Bay was closed to commercial shellfish harvesting about 30 times, for a total of 182 days. Wow! If other kinds of farmers couldn’t harvest their crops for this many days, it would make national news. All the closures were related to rain events that carried high numbers of fecal coliform bacteria to the bay from throughout the watershed. The state Dept. of Health monitors marine waters and has the authority to keep commercial shellfish beds open or close them if marine water quality is compromised.
Bus stop number one was this hobby horse farm (above) near the headwaters of Swede Creek, a Samish tributary. Before improvements were made at this property, horses crossed this stream at will, pooping along the way. The primary fix here included installation of a culverted creek crossing. Why is this good? Horses can still cross the stream, but they can’t walk in it. When horses and cows walk in streams, poop and sediment enters the water, and riparian vegetation is ruined. This is a definite improvement, but more can be done. There was a lot of mud and manure in close proximity to the stream. We’d like to see the horses further confined, more vegetation along the stream buffer, and no possibility for mud or manure to enter the water.
Bus stop number two was this beef cow operation (above) along Scarab Creek, owned by Eben Twaddle, a third generation Samish farmer. Before improvements were made here, cattle freely wandered into the creek. We’re talking 60 cows, each capable of pooping 150 pounds of manure a day. When Eben learned about pollution problems in the Samish, he took action. He built this barn, and confines his cows for the winter months. His cows and pastures are healthier. He uses dry bedding inside the barn, which builds up and composts all winter – it’s less work than handling manure with conventional methods, and will be easy to field spread in the spring. I’m a confessed admirer of Eben Twaddle, but with this improvement, he approaches the highest possible status, and his cattle were the healthiest I’ve ever seen.
Bus stop number three was this bridge over Thomas Creek (above), a major tributary to the Samish River. Here were learned why it was essential to dredge Thomas ditch. I must have heard the word “ditch” fifty times at this stop, and I wasn’t the only tour participant wincing each time the dredging was mentioned. According to the speakers at this stop, Thomas ditch requires regular dredging - without it, farmers can’t farm and fish can’t swim because beaver dams and unwanted vegetation block their passage. I must be missing something - what's the improvement here? The water looked like mud, and in the distance we could see long expanses of sidecast mud recently dredged out of the creek.
I slipped into a reverie of the canoe trip I took down Thomas Creek last April. Along the Creek we noticed two farms where cattle had direct access to Thomas Creek, such as pictured above. Has this place been fixed? Why weren’t we visiting this place on the tour? And if you’re wondering, Thomas Creek is a salmon stream, not a ditch. It is listed on the Washington State’s 303(d) list of most polluted waters for exceeding water quality criteria for fecal coliform, dissolved oxygen, and pH.
The last stop of the day was an organic dairy farm. It was dark and cold, so we huddled inside one the barns and learned about the differences between an organic and conventional dairy operation. We got to see a brand new calf, the milking parlor, and the milk tanks. We heard about manure lagoons and regular inspections of this farm by the Department of Agriculture to ensure manure is handled correctly. I must have missed something here – what improvements have been made to keep fecal coliform out of the Samish River? Why were we visiting a dairy? Dairies are licensed and inspected, and few people suspect that they are contributing fecal coliform pollution to the Samish River.
It was a cold, wet, and interesting day. I made some new friends, and got to see areas of Skagit County that I’d never seen. But I’m not satisfied - I want to see more improvements on farms. Do you have one to offer up? Please let me know if you do. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!