Ecology to continue Skykomish River contaminant testing

When Gerry Gibson noticed large quantities of a white, sudsy substance floating down the Skykomish River over the summer, he wanted some answers. Concerned about his grandchildren swimming in potentially polluted waters, the 14-year Sultan resident reached out to several different agencies for help.

Initially, it was a little frustrating, Gibson said. He reached out to the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE), and then moved on to the Snohomish County Health District, the Department of Fisheries and the city of Sultan. Agencies weren't really willing to talk to him, he said, and they all seemed to indicate the problem was somebody else's responsibility. Finally, it dawned on him that he could simply pay to have the water tested himself.

He sought advice from Sultan resident Craig Young, a former watershed expert for Snohomish County. He showed Young the pollution, which initially seemed to occur predominantly in the mornings.-á

Gibson submitted water samples to Am Test Laboratories in Kirkland, paying for the tests out of his own pocket. When the results revealed a high level of fecal coliform and the presence of nonorganic pollutants known as surfactants, people finally stood up and took notice.

The initial test indicated a fecal coliform level at nearly 10 times the acceptable level based on state standards for water quality. Surfactant contamination can be caused by chemicals frequently found in laundry detergents and cleaning products, and is often present in septic system effluent; the waste commonly discharged into a waterway.

Gibson's efforts resulted in ongoing monitoring and testing of fecal coliform levels by the DOE, culminating in a multi-agency meeting held last Tuesday at Sultan City Hall. Nearly 30 residents and representatives were in attendance, including Snohomish Health District Environmental Health Manager Kevin Plemel, Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick, DOE Water Quality Program contact Ralph Svrjcek and Sultan City Councilmember John Seehuus.

Allan Wahl and Janell Majewski from Snohomish County Surface Water Management were also in attendance, along with numerous Sultan residents and city staff.

Svrjcek is the agency official who ended up doing the monitoring after Gibson reported his test results. He presented his findings to the group and answered questions.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, fecal coliform is "an indicator of bacterial contamination from human and other warm-blooded animals.GÇ¥ The live organism is commonly found in the feces of livestock, wildlife, pets and people, and it can contain illness-causing pathogens. Failing septic systems can cause excessive levels of fecal coliform.

In and of itself, fecal coliform isn't necessarily bad for you, Svrjcek said, but it can be an indicator of organisms that cause diseases such as E. coli, hepatitis and salmonella. Fecal coliform is measured in Colony Forming Units (CFU), which the state likes to see at a level well below 200 CFU per 100 milliliters.

"We'd like to see that average number be no more than 100, but because bacteria levels in the environment tend to fluctuate a bit naturally, we allow one out of 10 samples to be 200,GÇ¥ Svrjcek said. "So, it's kind of a two-part standard.GÇ¥

Gibson's initial test in August indicated fecal coliform at a level of 1900 CFU per 100 milliliters. Detectible risk to swimmers is noted at 400 CFU, Svrjcek said.

But Svrjcek wasn't satisfied with the way Gibson took his sample. When Gibson collected the water, he made sure to include the foamy substance in the sample, which is not the way the DOE typically engages in its testing, he said.

"I wasn't happy with how he took his sample, but I was still none the less concerned and wanted to know what was going on,GÇ¥ Svrjcek said. "So I took some samples, and didn't like the numbers that I got. They weren't horrible, but still I thought they were higher than they should have been.GÇ¥

So he established a schedule for periodic testing at several locations in the vicinity, including on the Skykomish, Sultan and Wallace rivers. Skykomish River samples were collected at Gibson's home, in Baring and at Big Eddy Park east of Gold Bar. Further testing of the Wallace River was conducted at the old WSDOT rest stop in Startup, on Skywall Drive and both above and below the fish hatchery.-á

Since the monitoring started in late August, the fecal coliform levels have hovered around the 100 to 200 CFU range, falling lower at times and once spiking as high as nearly 250 in mid-September. Svrjcek charted the different levels that had been discovered and displayed the graph for attendees. The higher readings were taken near the Startup area, he said, but no source contaminant has been found. -á -á

"A weakness of this is that if the pollution input is a pulse type thing, and you're not monitoring in the middle of the pulse, you'll miss it,GÇ¥ Young said. "It doesn't mean it wasn't there, necessarily; it just means that you weren't able to capture it.GÇ¥

Young told Svrjcek he was the one who advised Gibson to include the foam in his sample.

"I encouraged Gerry to take a sample that included the material that was floating on top because my experience as a Lake Stevens watershed steward back in the 90s was that everybody would talk about foam and say it's natural, and every time I tested the foam it was a surfactant,GÇ¥ Young said. "I'm not a foam expert, but I do know that a lot of foam that people call natural is not natural.GÇ¥

Surfactants are toxic to shellfish, Young added.

Due to limited resources, the state hasn't conducted testing for surfactants, because the presence of fecal coliform bacteria was a larger concern. Foam is often naturally occurring in waterways, Svrjcek said, admitting he doesn't study foam, nor does he really focus on it; particularly in large river systems like the Skykomish.

Gibson voiced concerns about the foam and the regularity with which the substance occurred.

"Most of us live on the river, and we've noticed changes. We've all seen foam in the rivers; it flows by once in a while. What changed this year was it was first every morning for a couple hours, and then as the summer went along, it was all day long,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "Things have changed, and I don't know what it is.GÇ¥

The DOE testing has not indicated what could be causing the substance, which Gibson described as mostly white and sudsy, infused with brown material that seemed to ride on top of the foam. Gibson even explored the area in a kayak to see if he could locate the source, but to no avail.-á

The Snohomish County Health District weighed in, stating there isn't much it can do without a detectable cause to correct. The current levels are not indicative of a public health concern by any means.-á

"I think Ralph has done an excellent job of summarizing his findings relative to what he was looking for, which is, is there a health risk out here?GÇ¥ Plemel said. "Ralph can't be out there every day sampling constantly, but he did due diligence of sampling a number of places over a period of time and his results don't really give us anything to go on.GÇ¥

That's not to say that there isn't a contribution being made by somebody, he added.

"It's just that none of these point to a smoking gun of a significant source contaminant,GÇ¥ Plemel said. "When we investigate true storage spill type of issues, we don't look at numbers in the hundreds. We don't even see numbers in the thousands; we see it in the tens of thousands.GÇ¥

The DOE plans to continue its monitoring.-á

"I still believe that screening with bacteria tests is the one thing that should continue,GÇ¥ Svrjcek said.

Photo by Chris Hendrickson Small amounts of the white foam were visible during a November afternoon outside of GibsonGÇÖs home on Dyer Road.


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