Portage Bay opened to Lummi clam diggers on a sunny afternoon in April for the first time since 2014 when the beds were closed because of fecal coliform contamination.

Closing 820 acres of shellfish beds from April through June left Lummi tribal members with no opportunity to harvest there during daylight hours.

“Now, when the sunny days and low daytime tides are here, our people will again be able to harvest shellfish from Portage Bay,” said Merle Jefferson, Lummi Natural Resources director. “While we cheer this success, there is more work to be done – as the current shellfish harvest closure during the fall period will remain in effect due to continued high levels of bacterial contamination during the fall.”

Elevated fecal coliform pollution in 2014 likely was caused by a combination of human, pet, livestock and wildlife waste. Lummi worked with federal, state and local agencies, and community partners to improve the water quality so that tribal members could resume their treaty-protected shellfish harvest.

“We are encouraged that recent water quality monitoring data from Portage Bay indicate that on-the-ground practices undertaken by individuals and agencies throughout the watershed have been successful in reducing fecal coliform contamination during the spring months,” Jefferson said.

The Lummi Nation remains committed to working with community partners to improve water quality throughout the watershed.

“Over the course of our history, Portage Bay has been a place rich with marine life,” said Lummi Chairman Jay Julius. “Our traditional foods and subsistence way of life reinforces our culture and brings us together as a people.”

While failing septic systems and pet waste contribute to fecal coliform contamination, a major concern is manure from dairy cows discharged either directly or indirectly into the Nooksack River, which flows into Portage Bay. Whatcom County is home to more than 45,000 adult dairy cows, which can each generate 120 pounds of manure per day. When dairies store the waste in unlined lagoons, they can leak 900 gallons of manure into the ground every day, according to the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In 2017, several Whatcom County farmers created the Portage Bay Partnership with Lummi, to develop a water quality improvement plan addressing manure management, improved manure storage, surface and groundwater monitoring, annual animal pen inspections and underground drain tile inspections.

“Farms are not wholly responsible for the contamination, but the farms that have joined the partnership are stepping forward as leaders in fixing it, and we hope others will follow their example,” Jefferson said.