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Water quality improving for Puget Sound shellfish

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Good news for those who love local oysters and clams: the stateDepartment of Health says there’s been a steady improvement in water quality for nearly a decade, leading to fewer closures of shellfish beds in Puget Sound.

The key measure is of fecal coliform bacteria, which lives in human and animal waste. Runoff from farms and leaky sewage systems carries the bacteria and contaminates shellfish beds. People who eat the polluted shellfish can get sick.

“In the 80s and early 90s, we closed like 50,000 acres due to pollution,” says Bob Woolrich, who monitors water quality for shellfish growing at the state Department of Health.

He says now they’ve re-opened nearly all of those acres. And there’s been a steady decline in the amount of fecal coliform pollution all over Puget Sound since 2003. That’s according to analysis of over 50,000 tests carried out in 38 shellfish growing areas.

“We’re seeing better water quality over the long term," Woolrich says. "And this is encouraging because we’ve seen more development, you know there’s a lot more of us around, people are developing shorelines, and yet we’re still seeing this reduction. So, pollution sources are being addressed. ”

He credits cooperation by many agencies and the formation of the Puget Sound Partnership, to raise awareness about how to keep human and animal waste out of water – everything from fixing old septic systems to scooping up pet waste. 

There are still some hot spots, for example, Whatcom County’sSamish Bay, which has been closed 8 timessince March. Woolrich says compliance by farmers there has been slower than in some areas.

This is making it harder for authorities to reach the state's goal of increasing harvestable shellfish beds by 10,800 acres by 2020.

But the bigger picture for most of Puget Sound is that water quality is much improved.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to