By Jillian Urbach

If you’ve ever been to A Rocha’s Brooksdale Environmental Center, then you know the Little Campbell River named Tatalu in SENĆOŦEN, the language of the Semiahmoo First Nation people whose traditional territory Tatalu’s watershed provides essential habitat to a diversity of native—and even some endangered—wildlife and plant species.

Unfortunately, this little river is the greatest source of fecal coliform contamination that flows into Semiahmoo Bay. Historically, the bay has been a shellfish harvesting site for several Coast Salish communities, including Semiahmoo First Nation. For the last several decades, however, fecal coliform levels in the Bay have been determined unfit for shellfish harvesting according to Canadian health standards. This pollution has impacted First Nations communities by forcing them to abstain from harvesting practices that are an integral part of their cultures and traditional food security.

Additionally, this issue reflects poor ecosystem health in general: elevated bacteria also means elevated nutrients and depleted oxygen which negatively affects native species populations, such as salmon; fecal bacteria contaminate ready-to-eat produce such as lettuce, livestock drinking water, and can close recreational beaches, so there are many reasons to address it in a timely manner.

A Rocha is working alongside Semiahmoo First Nation and other members of the Shared Waters Alliance to monitor water quality in several locations along the Tatalu and its tributaries. The goal of this project is to identify the major sources of fecal coliform contamination in order to be able to suggest the best strategies for bringing those contamination levels down.

The fecal coliform standards for shellfish harvesting and recreation in Canada are 14 CFU/100 mL and 200 CFU/100 mL, respectively. Water quality data collection for this project began in 2009 so we now have over a decade of fecal coliform results to work with and can see that the majority of sites tested have consistently fallen above these guidelines for the entirety of the testing period.

The next question we must ask is: “how do we begin to combat this issue?” Because we don’t know the exact sources of contamination affecting the Little Campbell River, we can start by examining some factors that are generally known to contribute to high fecal coliform levels in waterways. These include septic system discharges, runoff from agricultural land containing livestock waste, cross-connections between storm and sewage pipes, and pet waste.

These factors can be addressed by the implementation of appropriate waste management systems and waterway protection methods. It is important to make sure that septic systems are located at an acceptable distance from waterways so that wastewater has further to travel, and therefore a better chance of being treated by physical and biological processes in the soil, before entering the waterway. Instead of allowing farmland to extend right up to the water’s edge, restoring and maintaining riparian zones will create a natural layer of protection around the waterways to prevent excess sediment and pollutants from running directly into them.

Our research and monitoring of the Tatalu will continue, while we simultaneously partner with landowners and local municipalities to discuss the extent of this issue and how to combat it. Whatcom County has some great on-line resources to help get us started.  We are hopeful that strategies can be implemented which will help to lower fecal coliform contamination in the bay so that the Semiahmoo First Nation can resume the shellfish harvesting practices that are such an integral part of their culture.

Are you interested in helping to combat this issue? Visit our events page to sign up for a Restoration Saturday and help us restore the Tatalu’s riparian zone by removing invasive species and planting native ones!


Below: Jillian Urbach getting her hands dirty with habitat restoration! 

(Photo credit: Chris Wang)