SHELTON – People living along Oakland Bay don’t think they have anything to do with a significant increase in pollution in the bay, according to a survey by the Sa-Heh-Wa-mish Stewardship Initiative and the Squaxin Island Tribe.

“We have direct evidence that the human population around the bay contributes to water pollution, but it’s hard for people to connect their individual actions with the problem,” said John Konovsky, environmental program manager for the tribe. Recent studies have identified human and livestock fecal coliform as a source of pollution threatening Oakland Bay.

“We can’t clean up Oakland Bay without the help of all the landowners in the watershed,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the tribe. “The first step is to be able to draw the link between where the pollution is coming from and the impact it’s having on human health and people’s jobs.” Oakland Bay is the largest producer of manila clams in the country and private shellfish farmers are among the largest employers in Mason County.

Other results of the survey include:

  • Over half of the owners of septic systems that had not been inspected in the last five years said their septic was a not problem.
  • Over 60 percent of livestock owners said they didn’t have enough livestock to pose a problem.

These conclusions were gleaned from interviews late last year with over 150 Oakland Bay residents.

“Right now, there is an unfortunate disconnect between what we know about the pollution issues and the best way to solve them,” Konovsky said. “We need to somehow make the connection real to ensure that we all know how to do our part.” In Oakland Bay, it only takes the failure of four septic systems for one year to increase bacteria to levels that would shut down shellfish harvest.

Both Mason County and the Mason Conservation District are poised to help landowners with money for septic tank riser installation and assistance with livestock management. The funds are intended to ease any financial burdens of improving stewardship.

In addition to the massive impact a shellfish harvest closure would have on the local economy, decreased water quality in Oakland Bay is a huge threat to human health and local property values. “Living next to a poisoned body of water is not a great selling point,” Konovsky said.

Three years ago 60 acres of shellfish growing beds at the head of Oakland Bay were downgraded to restricted status by the state because of increasing fecal pollution. The Sa-Heh-Wa-mish Stewardship Initiative, a local effort to reverse the course of increasing pollution in the bay, was founded in response. The federally funded effort includes many local, state and federal agencies.

“This problem is bigger than a lot of people realize,” Whitener said. “The entire community needs to come together to reverse the pollution trend in Oakland Bay. We won’t be able to protect this place until we can convince people there is a problem here and that we need their help to solve it.”

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For more information, contact: John Konovsky, environmental program manager, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3804. Emmett O’Connell, South Sound information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, eoconnell@nwifc.org.