The small area (339, 340) outlined in red was previously conditionally approved. The area in red below was previously approved. Courtesy Washington State Dept. of Health

The water quality in Burley Lagoon was downgraded by the Washington State Department of Health in February. Eighty-one acres were downgraded from approved to conditionally approved for shellfish harvesting, and 20 acres were downgraded from conditionally approved to restricted. Minter Bay showed some small decreases in water quality, but there was no change in its classification as approved.

WSDOH routinely tests water at all sites where shellfish are harvested recreationally or commercially, though testing is more frequent in the commercial areas. Water is tested for coliforms, bacteria associated with human and animal waste, and quality is based on the concentration of these bacteria.

When water quality is approved, shellfish can be harvested anytime unless there is an emergency closure. If it is conditionally approved, shellfish cannot be harvested for a defined period of time following a certain amount of rainfall or other condition that has been found to negatively affect water quality. If an area is restricted, shellfish cannot be harvested directly from that site, but they can be relocated to cleaner water to flush themselves and then be harvested. This relay does not negatively impact the approved area.

For any site where marine water quality does not meet the standards for safe shellfish harvest, state law requires formation of a shellfish protection district. There are four such districts on the Key Peninsula: Burley Lagoon, Rocky Bay, Vaughn Bay and Filucy Bay. The Burley Lagoon district is about 10,000 acres and straddles Pierce and Kitsap counties.

The Burley Lagoon and Minter Bay water quality protection team met in February to develop a response plan to the downgrade. Ray Hanowell, environmental health specialist with Pierce County Environmental Health Surface Water Quality, said the plan will focus on identification, correction and prevention of sources of contamination. He said the most likely sources are humans, pets and livestock. Wild animals such as Canada geese and raccoons can be a problem, but they are usually not as significant as those related to human activities.

Hanowell said it is possible to improve water quality once it has been downgraded, but that it can be difficult depending on the source of contamination. It can take two to eight years to see changes.

Barbara Ann Smolko, watershed coordinator for Pierce County Water Quality and Watershed Services, said at the meeting that she is working to find grant funding to increase water sampling to identify the sources of contamination, and then work with landowners to make corrective changes.

Erin Ewald, environmental compliance manager for Taylor Shellfish, also attended the meeting. Taylor owns and operates a 300-acre growing operation in the Burley Lagoon, with 175 acres planted at any given time with oysters and Manila clams. They will continue to farm, moving any clams or oysters to safe waters before harvest.

Ewald said Taylor continues to work closely with all parties to improve conditions in the lagoon. As she has stated previously, “Shellfish is just the canary in the coal mine. The real issue with water quality is human health. Taylor wants to be a part of any community effort to keep our water clean and safe.” (“Rocky Bay Water Quality at Risk,” KP News August 2016)

Taylor submitted a permit to plant geoducks in up to 25 acres in Burley Lagoon in 2016. An environmental impact statement is part of that permit process. Ewald said the change in water quality did not change those plans and that Taylor hopes to complete the EIS this spring. A public hearing will follow at the Key Peninsula Land Use Advisory Council. A final EIS with the Pierce County Department of Land Services recommendation will then be presented to the Pierce County hearing examiner. That decision will then go to the Washington State Department of Ecology for review.

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