Team looks out for water quality, habitat


Irene Torres, KP News

Every month, Don Melvin goes boating—but not for pleasure. He is taking samples of water to send to the state Department of Health’s Office of Food Safety and Shellfish program.

Melvin, a state environmental specialist, works with other county and state offices, landowners, government agencies, tribes, and residents to protect and restore water quality, to identify contamination sources and repair damage.

One recent day, he and Stephanie Kenny from Mason County Health Services spoke with the KP News about their work, as they wrapped up a morning of water quality monitoring atthe Allyn Dock.

Their main focus is certification of shellfish growing areas, harvesting and processing. Shellfish beds are subject to a federal classification scheme assigned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Areas are classified as approved (open to harvest any time) or conditionally approved (harvest can be closed for a predictable period of time due to predetermined conditions). Melvin cited one example, “Any time there is over half-inch of rainfall, the area will be closed for five days.” If contamination exceeds standards, an area can be designated as restricted or prohibited from harvesting activities.

The most common causes of contamination are on-site domestic sewage systems, stormwater runoff, especially from impervious (paved) surfaces in developed areas, agricultural runoff, and livestock kept adjacent to creeks. “Nonpoint” pollution sources — those that cannot be easily identified — are also areas of concern. “Ultimately, the solution to water quality problems comes down to the residents,” said Melvin.

“The residents of the town of Allyn have done an incredible job to identify contamination from stormwater runoff — which was being piped directly to the beach— by constructing a community sewer system to reduce high bacteria counts. As a result, North Bay has been moved up from conditional to approved,” as a shellfish harvest area, said Melvin. “Some areas are being upgraded. Others are getting worse,” he added.

A typical day finds Melvin and Kenny aboard a boat, monitoring shoreline conditions, and taking water samples by hand from Vaughn Bay, Rocky Bay and North Bay. The samples are placed into 120-milliliter vials as the two record time, tidal phase, water temperature and salinity. The samples are transported via a Greyhound bus to the state laboratory in Seattle, where they are tested for fecal coliform bacteria per FDA water-quality standards.

The team consists of about 30 people and four boats. Melvin’s area of responsibility covers Drayton Harbor to Willapa Bay (open coast), and encompasses 96 certified commercial shellfish growing areas, 22 of which are now listed by the Department of Health as threatened with closure or harvest restrictions. His office provides information to landowners about farm management techniques, “with an eye toward being the best stewards of marine water quality,” said Melvin.

Educated as a high school biology teacher, Melvin taught school “long enough to realize I wasn’t cut out for it.” Eighteen years ago, the father of a former student told him about a job opportunity with the state, “and I woke up one morning realizing I’d made a career out of it,” he said. “It’s been a good job.”

Kenny, on the other hand, set out to make this her career with a degree in environmental health from the University of Washington. She has been with Mason County for six years.

While most of his boat trips are uneventful, Melvin recalled one memorable incident near Key Peninsula. “I was working for DNR (Department of Natural Resources) on an aquaculture project near McNeil Island…Two of us were working on some gear off Wyckoff Shoal, standing in about two feet of water not far from our anchored boat, when a guy in a large powerboat came cruising down Pitt Passage and ran aground on the shoal not far from where we were standing. Fortunately, he didn’t open the boat’s hull but he did have to sit on the shoal for several hours until the tide came back in,” said Melvin. “I don’t know what he thought we were standing on.”

During a major storm back in the ‘70s, Melvin aided a couple who had capsized in a small sail boat. “The next day we helped a number of folks retrieve boats that had broken their moorings,” he said.

Melvin, who lives on Oyster Bay at the end of Totten Inlet, is now in the lead position for the state’s shellfish restoration programs. He spends more of his time working with local governments, drafting reports that form the basis for classification decisions. Other responsibilities of his department include restaurant safety and foodborne illness outbreaks.

He expresses a degree of frustration because it is sometimes difficult to find people willing to brave rainy winters aboard a boat and to take on the challenges of weather and tides. “The crews pay close attention to weather forecasts and water conditions. If conditions worsen, their runs are cut short,” Melvin said.

“Summer is our reward,” explained Kenny.

For more information about shellfish protection, visit the Puget Sound Action Team at or call Don Melvin at 360-236-3320.

A map of threatened shellfish areas is posted on the Department of Health’s Website at