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The Story of Bacterial Problems at Larrabee State Park


Washington State may not be known for warm summers or as a popular place for swimming at the beach, but recreationists still love to play along the shorelines whether it’s combing the beach, checking out tide pool, kayaking the shoreline, scuba diving, fishing, crabbing, wading, and sometimes going for an occasional swim. Visitors from all over the world can be found vacationing at Larrabee State Park located near Bellingham, WA. During the summer months, the campsites fill up every night of the summer and and the park welcomes millions of visitors each season.  Because of its easy access and popular use for so many marine-related activities, public health and safety at Wild Cat Cove in Larrabee State Park has been of concern, and the Northwest Straits Chapter’s BWTF program has been testing there for more than a decade. 


Over the years, the water quality at Larrabee State Park has come back with consistently higher hits of enterococcus (bacteria that indicate fecal pollution) over the course of each consecutive summer. The Washington State Department of Ecology’s BEACH Program not only partners with the local Surfrider Chapter in Whatcom County, but also partners with our local county health department, who posts warning signs and inspects residential septic systems. Consistently high counts on Mondays with lower counts when resampled later in the week on Thursday or Friday indicated that this problem of high bacteria counts might be septic related given that folks visit their vacation home by the bay on weekends.   Any leak out early in the week seemed to be gone by the time we resampled later in the week after a few days of vacation home vacancy.



In 2009, the Whatcom County Health Department took out the residential parcel maps of the local watershed that drains into Wild Cat Cove and sent out notifications of septic system inspections to each of the houses, which were all on individual septic systems. No one in this neighborhood wanted to be the unknowing culprit, so all agreed. A few minor failing systems were discovered and fixed, but the real success appeared to be at one elderly lady’s house who had lived there for decades. The health department dumped an inert dye into one of her toilets and flushed it down. Within minutes the dye was visibly flushing directly into Wild Cat Cove. As it turned out, when the house was constructed, the sewage pipe accidentally got crossed with the rainwater pipe. This unfortunately happens more often than anyone would ever want to believe. Therefore it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to have your septic systems checked. Needless to say, the homeowner turned beet-red and did all she could to immediately fix the situation herself.


The next summer rolled around and Surfrider, Ecology, and the Health Department all felt confident that we would see fewer high hits of bacteria. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead of seeing less, we saw an even higher frequency of high hits of bacteria in the cove. The results almost forced permanent closure of the beach.  Instead, Surfrider, Ecology, the Health Department, and Larrabee State Park all met together to try to come up with a solution. We brainstormed a number of potential sources of bacteria. We looked into the ones that we could examine and crossed off potential sources only after we felt highly confident that they were not contributing to the bacteria problem. Often times the real problem is that the source of bacteria is not just coming from one source, but multiple sources. We went back and looked at septic systems again in the surrounding neighborhood, but crossed that off. We looked at the park’s septic system, but also crossed that off when we learned that the park had just installed a brand new state-of-the-art septic system, which checked out when Ecology directly sampled the septic system’s outflow pipe and the results were non-detect for bacteria.



The other potential sources we discussed included wildlife (mainly birds) and pet waste (a lot of people walk the beach in the area with their dogs), and then we had two other ideas. The first was that we noticed high counts of bacteria generally started at the beginning of crabbing season. The park ranger at the time seemed convinced that crabbers were leaving crab carcasses on the beach. While the crab shells are not a source of the bacteria themselves, they certainly can attract animals that could be sources of fecal bacteria. After doing some more research, it also appeared that other marine environments have had problems with bacteria festering in the shells and therefore sticking around longer to potentially cause harm. We also considered that the bacteria might not only be festering in the crab shells, but within the wrack line itself, which can have a huge buildup along the shoreline at times and mostly consists of eel grass at Wild Cat Cove. Large mats of algae have caused similar problems at other beaches.  We got the idea of the wrack harboring the bacteria because we noticed that when samples were collected directly after a maximum high tide, the samples came back with high bacteria readings. When the samples were collected during low tide, the samples typically came back with low or no bacteria counts. As always, it is important to collect what field data you can, such as tidal stage, when taking samples because patterns like this might present themselves.


Another question that was raised at our meeting with our partners was; what are the flushing patterns for the cove? It is a fairly enclosed area, but a few miles south there is a medium-size river that has a lot of problems with bacteria that could potentially contribute to Wild Cat Cove.  It was also speculated that eel grass harboring bacteria could be blown by wind and currents into the cove. Additionally, it is possible that the source is land-based within the watershed. Knowing the geography of the cove is also important because it is also possible that the cove is just not able to flush out and receive fresh clean water from Bellingham Bay.


Ecology investigated the potential sources we discussed by taking samples at three test sites for bacteria in the wrack, sediment, marine water, and fresh water drainages. The wrack came back too numerous to count results for bacteria while the water and sediment samples also came back high. The conundrum here was that while we found out that bacteria levels were high in eel grass, the state park would not permit the removal of the eel grass from the beach. Additionally, the eel grass is not the source of bacteria, so even if the eel grass were removed, Wild Cat Cove could still be highly contaminated with bacteria.


At this point, Ecology and the Health Department were considering shutting down the beach. No one wanted to see this happen, so Surfrider stepped in and decided to try an education and outreach program during the summer at the park while warning signs were posted. At another park where water samples showed similar problems with high counts of bacteria, the decided remedy was to replace the park’s septic system. Approximately a million dollars later, the next summer they were still getting high hits. Upon walking around the park, it was discovered that park users were doing things like dumping dirty baby diapers into the nearby stream. We weren’t certain of what the source of bacteria was at Larrabee, but we thought that our best chance to keep the beach open was to do some education and outreach while observing human and animal activities in the park.


During the summer of 2011, four WWU interns spent 300 hours each at Larrabee State park over the summer, mostly on weekends and holidays. They set up a booth to talk to park users about water quality, lead beach walks when the tide was low, and hosted campfire talks on Saturday evenings. Surfrider teamed up with the local Beach Naturalist Program to help train our interns on how to lead beach walks. Generally, we found that people were interested in the water quality at the park, but were unaware of its current status or how they as an individual might impact it.



But we still didn’t know what was causing the high counts of bacteria, so back to the drawing board we went. It seemed that one of the three sample sites in particular tended to have the largest frequency of high hits. So Ecology and the Health Department went in and did a stream segmentation where they collected samples from the nearshore marine water, the culvert outfall, and moving up stream. Going upstream the bacteria counts consistently got higher until the tiny creek split. One branch dropped to non-dectable bacteria while the other branch was too numerous to count. The samplers also noticed that there were lots of food bags and saw signs of raccoons. Over time we came to the realization that raccoons typically will go to the bathroom in the same place and tend to like damp muddy areas, which describes this area perfectly. As we began to piece it all together, the issue at hand seems to be that over the years, the park’s raccoon population has been growing as these creatures have discovered how easy it is to get human food from park visitors at the campsites. As a result, as the raccoon population grew, so did the amount of fecal matter and bacteria washing down into the cove.


The summer of 2012 rolled around and we decided to continue the internship program. This time, we had the help of the local Marine Resource Committee, which helped provide additional funding for sampling as well as education materials including signs, picnic bench placards, and brochures. We had a lot of wonderful applicants for the program so we expanded our number of interns from four to thirteen, and instead of just having education and outreach on the weekends, the interns were at the park on a daily basis. We also added watershed hikes, offering two options; one along a lovely trail to a rare, white sand beach tucked away among rocky cliffs and the other on a hike up to a beautiful lake with stunning views of the bay. Having more interns proved to be really successful. While it was more work to manage them all, they all responded well to a rigorous training that incorporated beach walk training from the Beach Naturalist Program, a Watershed Walk training from an Audubon Society Naturalist, and an info booth training by some local volunteers who help out with grassroots activist trainings, such as, Green Peace, Sierra Club, Fuse Washington, and more.


During the summer of 2012, interns also collected survey information about park users. It turns out that every camper had a story about a raccoon attempting to steal food within the first hour of unpacking at their campsite.


Our plans for this summer include expanding the education and outreach program with materials like kids’ activity books and more interpretive hikes and beach walks.  We also plan to continue to work with our partners to determine if the raccoons are truly the source of elevated bacteria and what short term and long term solutions can be implemented. Long-term solutions would include our education and outreach programs to educate campers to secure their food from raccoons. The theory is that if the raccoons are not able to steal human food, their local population will drop as raccoons move on elsewhere to find more plentiful sources of food. With a lowered raccoon population, the bacteria levels in the water should drop.



The short-term plan includes a few experimental remedies. The first experiment involves another stream segment sampling followed by a full week of scooping raccoon feces from the area.  The stream will then be resampled after a week of removing the feces. If there is a significant difference between the before and after, then this will be a good clue that the raccoon feces are the source of the bacteria problem, and it can be remedied in the short term by scooping the poop. The second experiment will be to try out a mycoremediation project. An installation of fungi will be put into the park to filter out and reduce the coliform bacteria. We will collect samples to monitor levels of bacteria, phosphorus, and nitrogen levels in the stream before and after the fungi are installed. Nutrient loading has been reported in a similar past study, so we decided to make sure that we are not overloading the system with nutrients. The hope is that mycoremediation will fix the problem in the short term and could applied in other waterways with similar pollution issue.


While we still do not know what the absolute solution to the bacterial problem at Larrabee State Park will be, we do know that each step we make is taking us closer to finding a solution, keeping the beach open to recreation and protecting human health.



The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF), presented by Emergen-C Blue®, helps local chapters alert citizens and officials in their communities about water quality issues and works to implement solutions. As clean water becomes an increasingly scarce resource, Emergen-C Blue is committed to supporting, enhancing, and extending the efforts of the BWTF by donating 20 cents for every box sold to further the important work being done to improve water quality. For more information about Emergen-C Blue and the Emergen-C Fund, please visit .