The Surprising Facts About Other Contributors to Water Quality Problems
Agriculture is recognized as a significant contributor to water quality concerns--both nitrates and fecal coliform. As we have seen, Whatcom County’s family dairy farmers are regulated and have taken over-and-above prevention measures which have greatly reduced their contributions to water quality problems. However, there are many other contributors to these water quality issues and most of these are increasing at an accelerating rate even while dairy farms and milk cows are becoming fewer and prevention measures are working effectively.
The rapid growth of Ferndale, Lynden and increasing suburbanization
According to the City of Bellingham website, the primary contributors to fecal coliform in streams and lakes are hobby farms, faulty septic systems and leaking sewers and waste from pets and wildlife. The EPA reports: “The major sources of nitrates in drinking water are runoff from fertilizer use; leaking from septic tanks, sewage; and erosion of natural deposits.”
Ginny Prest of the Washington State Department of Agriculture outlined a number of potential contributors to water quality issues related to the Lummi shellfish bed closures: “Elevated fecal coliform originates from a variety of sources including non-agronomic manure applications, failing septics, storm water runoff, livestock and other factors. Combined, these sources create the conditions that downgrade shellfish beds,” Prest said in a January/February 2015 issue of Dairyland News.
North County Population and Housing Growth
As noted, there are fewer dairy farms and dairy cows and farmers have been effectively manage farm nutrients thereby reducing pollution. But, in the meantime, growth in northern Whatcom County is accelerating creating new challenges for water quality.
All of northern Whatcom County is growing at a much faster rate than Bellingham. The latest census figures show Ferndale growing at a 2.4% rate, Lynden right behind at 2.3%. But Bellingham is growing at just .07%.
This can also be seen in the number of building permits issued in Ferndale compared to Bellingham from July 2009 to June 2012, according to the June 2, 2014 article in the Bellingham Herald. In that time period there were 73 building permits issued in Ferndale. Bellingham, which is seven times larger than Ferndale, should have had 511 permits issued to keep pace with Ferndale. Instead, only 77 permits were issued in the same time period.
Growth into traditional farmland affects water quality in several ways. This can be seen in very high fecal coliform counts in the Fishtrap Creek monitoring station directly below the City of Lynden following storm events. As cows and crops give way to concrete and cul-de-sacs, the natural filtration that occurs in farmland disappears. While cities and towns have sewage systems designed to limit contamination, most residential growth in the north county is in traditional farmland where septic systems are the norm. The Whatcom Conservation District reports that just five residential septic systems can contribute up to ten times more nitrates to groundwater than just one one acre manure lagoon. There has also been substantial growth in micro-farms and hobby farms. These often have multiple animals including cattle and horses, but unlike diaries, these are not regulated. Small farms, hobby farms and rural residences also apply fertilizers that also contribute.
Everybody loves a small farm. But, they too are part of the problem.
While the number of productive, professional dairy farms is declining, the number of small farms is growing throughout Washington state and in Whatcom County. Some are clearly “hobby farms,” but many of these small farmers are working hard to make their land productive and profitable. According to the Washington State Extension Service: “In 2007, only 53% of the total farms counted in Washington State had sales of $2,500 or more (Figure 4). Only around a third of all farms had sales over $10,000. Between the 1997 and the 2007 census, nearly all but the very smallest and the very largest farms declined in number.”
Water shows no respect for the
The very smallest farms which sell under $10,000 per year make up nearly two thirds of the total number of farms. This number is increasing as is the number of large farms selling over $500,000 per year. The good news is those larger, professionally run farms are much more able to meet today’s increasingly rigorous environmental requirements. Small farms, many with horses, cows and other farm animals, are not regulated and do not have the financial capability to ensure proper management of manure. While the move to five acre “hobby farm” estates and the creation of small farms selling produce at the farmer’s market is viewed by many as a positive, the impact on water quality cannot be ignored. These land uses are completely unregulated but add manure from animals and commercial nitrogen to large lawns, landscapes, gardens and small-scale crops. It is ironic that the promotion of smaller farms as an answer to important questions about food has a potentially negative impact on water quality.