Cattle ranches fined for Samish River pollution

Washington State

BELLINGHAM – The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) has fined two livestock operators $14,000 each for failing to keep livestock waste from polluting waterways that flow into the Samish River.
Cattle ranches in Washington State have been fined for polluting the Samish River

The actions were part of Ecology’s work on the Clean Samish Initiative, an effort of more than 20 organizations and government agencies to coordinate cleanup of fecal coliform bacteria pollution in Samish Bay, the Samish River and their tributaries. The bacteria originate in the intestinal tracts of humans, warm-blooded animals and birds. Improperly managed livestock operations are one of several types of pollution sources the initiative addresses.

Ecology issued the penalties to Mark Blackwood, who raises beef cattle near Sedro-Woolley, and Rick Clark, who raises bison on the Rockin R Ranch near Bow. At both locations, rainwater that contacts manure flows directly into ditches that flow to the Samish River or to Samish Bay.

“After months of repeated contact, we’ve seen little to no progress from these two operations,” said Richard Grout, who oversees water quality compliance at Ecology’s Bellingham Field Office. “We’re working with dozens of livestock-rearing operations in the Samish, and most have done their part. We issued these two fines as a last resort in each case.”

Blackwood farm

On the Blackwood farm, a concrete slab partially covered with manure, and a hillside covered in manure-contaminated mud and used cattle bedding, both drain directly to ditches that flow to Wear Creek, a tributary of the Samish River. One sample of water draining from the farm contained 7,500 times the state’s clean water standard for bacteria in freshwater streams. Water sampled from a neighbor’s property upstream was well within the standard.

Ecology has made multiple visits to the farm since February 2010. At various times, Ecology, the Skagit Conservation District, Skagit County’s Natural Resource Stewardship Program and a neighbor with heavy equipment have offered significant financial and technical assistance for work needed to prevent discharges of contaminated water. Ecology has issued warning letters and, in January 2011, a formal order directing Blackwood to correct the problems.

Clark property

The Clark property has a large manure-contaminated muddy area that drains to a ditch along Chuckanut Drive that flows to the North Edison Slough. Clark put up a temporary earth embankment to contain runoff from the area when first visited by Ecology in May 2009. In a warning letter, Ecology referred Clark to the conservation district for farm planning assistance to correct the pollution problem permanently. A year later, Clark had made no further progress on the ground.

After measuring bacteria in water draining from the property at eight times the state water quality allowable standard in January 2011, Ecology issued Clark a second warning letter. In June 2011, Clark informed Ecology that he had plowed and seeded the muddy area, but denied Ecology access to view the corrective work. Ecology delivered a formal order in July, but has not received confirmation from Clark that the required corrective steps have been taken.

Clark said, “We also are concerned with the water quality and willing to work with the Department of Ecology and Skagit Conservation District. We have been working with the conservation district on the phone and on the property, but it’s a really challenging property, and we’re not there yet.”

Blackwood and Clark may appeal the penalties within 30 days to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board.

Broader efforts

As part of the Clean Samish Initiative, Ecology has paid 171 visits to 91 non-dairy livestock operations since mid-2009. Most owners have complied with Ecology requests or directives to follow practices that prevent contamination of water that runs off their properties. Ecology has issued 47 warning letters and five formal orders in addition to the penalties for Blackwood and Clark. An earlier penalty case ended in a settlement in which the producer implemented needed corrections.

Over the same period, the conservation district has provided technical assistance to 51 landowners with livestock herds. Twenty-nine of these received formal farm plans, which include measures to protect water quality, with 12 more under development. Ten other herd owners needed only informal assistance. The district arranged financial assistance for 13 landowners to implement practices in their farm plans.

The Clean Samish Initiative works to eliminate bacterial water quality violations in Samish basin waters by March 1, 2012. High bacteria levels in Samish Bay have prompted the Washington Department of Health to make 14 temporary shellfish harvesting closures in 2010 and 11 so far in 2011. Over the past four years, these closures have curtailed harvesting for 29 days in 2008, 39 days in 2009, 68 days in 2010 and 55 days so far in 2011.

The Clean Samish Initiative is part of the Puget Sound Initiative, which seeks to restore the overall health of Puget Sound by 2020.

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