Vaughn Bay water quality downgraded

Sara Thompson

This past summer, the water quality in Vaughn Bay declined to the point that measures to improve and protect it are necessary.

For decades, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) has tested the water in the bays suitable for shellfish harvesting every other month. The test is for fecal coliform, the bacteria that live in the intestines of warm-blooded mammals including humans. In Vaughn Bay, an increase in coliform levels has been seen over the last two and a half years.

This summer, those test results led to a downgrade in the water quality from “approved”to “conditional”in a significant portion of Vaughn Bay. This means that shellfish cannot be harvested if more than a half-inch of rain has fallen in 24 hours.

When a downgrade occurs, state law requires formation of a shellfish protection district within 180 days. For Vaughn Bay, that deadline is Feb. 1, 2016. Formation of a shellfish protection district requires an ordinance to be approved by the Pierce County Council. It also requires creating a closure response plan (CRP).

There are already three such districts on the Key Peninsula —Burley Lagoon, Rocky Bay and Filucy Bay. Once a district forms, it is permanent, even if the poor water conditions are corrected. The boundaries of the districts are determined by the topography —to include all land that drains into the affected bay.

In the case of Vaughn Bay, 3,583 acres will lie within the district. Parcels within a shellfish protection district are not regulated differently from other parcels and owners do not pay additional fees.

The Pierce County Shellfish Partners Strategic Plan will provide framework for creating the CRP. The plan will consider the most likely sources of pollution and then recommend actions to prevent, identify and correct those sources. The most likely sources are failing septic systems, livestock and pets.

Barbara Ann Smolko, from Pierce County Surface Water Management, said that the approaches to improving the water quality include onsite sewage systems operation and maintenance, education, incentives, Watershed Council participation, technical assistance, communication, inspection and monitoring.

“Community members are needed to provide advice on what is most likely to be successful in the Vaughn area and what resources are needed to help residents make improvements,”she said.

 Postcards were sent to residents of the affected area to let them know about the downgrade and need for action. Smolko has already met with a group of residents to decide how to prioritize recommended actions and figure out which recommendations should be implemented first. She welcomes more participation.

“The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, the Pierce Conservation District and Pierce County Surface Water Management will be the primary implementers of the closure response associated with creating the district and to the many residents who have attended meetings and helped put together the plan,”she said.

Technical advice as well as financial assistance is available to help qualified property owners with failing septic systems. Technical advice is available to evaluate stormwater solutions and livestock management.