The announcement that shellfish harvesting has been approved for 240 acres of Henderson Inlet is not earth-shattering. But it's a positive indication that efforts to improve water quality in lower Puget Sound are having measurable success.
Yes, it’s true that shellfish harvesting in Henderson Inlet has been on-again, off-again for more than a decade. But every time health officials say that shellfish-growing tidelands can be opened for harvest without weather restrictions, it fosters a sense of accomplishment and hope.
Southern Puget Sound has very little flushing action and thus it is far more difficult to purify the water through natural means. Budd Inlet, for example, has been off limits to shellfish harvesting for as long as most of us can remember. Nonpoint pollution, failing septic systems, stormwater runoff, agricultural products and animal feces washed down the Deschutes River and other sources of pollution have poisoned Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet. The lake was put off limits to swimmers in the 1970s, and while the lake is a magnificent reflecting pond for the Capitol Dome, South Sound residents know that its beauty masks its unhealthy water quality.
That’s why news that hundreds of acres of shellfish beds in Henderson Inlet are once again open to harvests – even after heavy rainfall – comes as welcome news. It’s an unexpected victory in a 25-year uphill battle against water pollution in the marine inlet north of Lacey.
“This is no doubt one of the state’s most successful shellfish-restoration projects,” said Gregg Grunenfelder, assistant secretary for the state Department of Health.
For nine years, health officials had put the 240 acres of tidelands off limits to shellfish harvesting following heavy rainfalls. For five days after each rain event, no harvesting was allowed as the shellfish processed the pollution washed into the inlet by the downpour. That meant shellfish growers lost about 100 days of harvest each year, according to Lawrence Sullivan, a state health official in the shellfish program.
Since 1984, health officials had closed or restricted shellfish harvesting on 657 acres of the inlet, which has been plagued by pollution problems. Compounding the challenge is the fact that the inlet is shallow, flushes poorly and drains some of the most heavily developing areas of Lacey, Olympia and Thurston County.
Very much to their credit, local elected officials have worked diligently to reverse the pollution trends and restore water quality. They have engaged in educational campaigns to teach homeowners that the fertilizer or pet waste on their lawns or the oil in their driveway, can find its way into the inlet and negatively affect water quality and shellfish harvesting.
The education effort has had an effect as evidenced by the fact that about one-third of the homeowners on septic systems have attended county-sponsored workshops to learn how to take care of their systems and lessen their effects on water degradation. Pet owners now know that they can have a positive effect if they pick up and properly dispose of pet waste which is a source of bacterial contamination in marine waters.
Those are positive steps. There have been many others:
Thurston County formed a shellfish-protection district for the 30,000-acre Henderson Inlet watershed after the 2001 harvest restriction, then took steps to beef up inspections and maintenance of on-site septic systems.
Lacey invested millions of dollars on major stormwater-control projects so stormwater that once dumped directly into Woodland Creek — the main source of fresh water entering the inlet — is stored and treated before it is released.
Working with the Thurston Conservation District, hobby farmers and livestock owners have improved their management of manure to keep it out of feeder streams and the inlet.
Yes, more than 400 acres in lower Henderson Inlet still is either off limits to harvesting of shellfish or is restricted following rainstorms.
As county environmental health director Art Starry said, “We are on the right track, but there’s a lot of work left to be done.”
True enough, but let’s take a moment to celebrate one positive step forward.