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Looking north across Drayton Harbor (May 20, 2021). Photo: Whatcom News

Drayton Harbor’s water quality history bubbles up amid new concerns

BLAINE, Wash. — Whatcom County and Washington State agencies that make up the Whatcom Clean Water Program recently issued a statement warning of increases in bacteria levels in Drayton Harbor. This shellfish harvest area currently meets water quality standards but is threatened with restrictions due to bacterial pollution according to a May 21st press release from the Washington State Department of Health.

During late 2020 and early 2021, program partners reported high fecal bacteria levels in portions of Drayton Harbor.

The recent increases in bacteria levels may set back hard-won efforts over the past several years to improve water quality in the area and recover year-round shellfish harvest. Community-wide action is needed now to reverse these trends.

Whatcom Clean Water Program press release (April 12, 2021).

In 1995, 810 acres of shellfish growing area, representing more than half of Drayton Harbor, were closed to shellfish harvest after the State Department of Health closed that portion of Drayton Harbor due to high bacteria levels. It was reopened to year-round harvest on December 1, 2016, save for the occasional short-term biotoxin closures.


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During the more than 20 years the harbor area was closed, agencies and community members worked to improve the water quality. According to Whatcom County Public Works (WCPW), actions taken to reduce bacteria pollution included:

  • • Investments in wastewater and stormwater system upgrades
  • • Evaluation and repair of septic systems
  • • Use of marina pump out stations
  • • Fencing farm animals out of waterways and managing manure and mud
  • • Planting vegetation buffers along stream banks
  • • Picking up pet waste

The Drayton Harbor watershed (land where all water flows to 1 place) reaches miles inland and includes the lengths of Dakota Creek and California Creek. Reducing fecal bacteria sources throughout the watershed was seen to directly result in reduced bacteria levels in the harbor.

Key potential sources of bacteria were identified as animal waste from livestock, domestic pets, waterfowl and other wildlife along with human sewage from failing on-site septic systems and leaks in municipal sewage systems. Fecal coliform bacteria are found in human and animal feces. Detection in a creek is a sign that pathogens from these wastes may be polluting the water.

State water quality standards require the geometric mean of samples taken not exceed a fecal coliform content of 200 FC/100 ml with less than 10% of samples exceeding 200 FC/100 ml.

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The following tables detail how the sample measures taken between March 2020 and February 2021 at 8 locations around and near the harbor compare with the water quality benchmark.

Graphics provided by Whatcom County Public Works (February 2021)

Locations from the graphs:

DHOUT30Outfall SW from Madison Avenue
LS5bBayview Avenue north of Albert Street
LS5cOutfall west of LS5b
DH8Outfall at south end of Montfort Avenue
Cal0.1Mouth of California Creek
Dak0.1 Mouth of Dakota Creek
CC0Cain Creek drainage east of Marine Drive, west of the railroad
CCCain Creek culvert north of Marine Drive, west of the railroad

Whatcom Clean Water Program partners are asking local residents to help bring down the bacteria levels by doing the following.

  • picking up pet poop (every time)
  • inspecting your septic systems to prevent costly and messy failures
  • using marina pump out stations
  • keeping farm animals off wet pastures,
  • managing manure responsibly

For more complete resources and information, visit the program’s spring 2021 tips (PDF).

Temporary closures due to high biotoxin levels are a separate health concern. Biotoxin levels can change rapidly and are the result of naturally occurring toxin-producing algae that, under the right combination of warm temperatures, sunlight and nutrient-rich waters, can grow into harmful algal “blooms.” Oysters, clams and mussels that ingest large amounts of algae during a bloom can themselves become toxic and dangerous when eaten by humans. It is during those times that temporary closures due to high biotoxin levels occur.

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