Innovative project targets septic woes in East Clallam County

Imagine:

* Mushrooms that are conditioned to eat polluting bacteria.

* Scientists, like crime scene investigators, tracing fecal coliform germs to their source: humans, dogs. cats, cows, or horses.

* Nearly $60,000 paid to Dungeness River watershed residents to pump or repair their septic systems.

These are just parts of a one-time, three-year $1.5 million project to find and fix pollution in East Clallam County, $984,000 of which is a grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe and six public partners.

The EPA Targeted Watershed Initiative grant is one of only 14 of its kind in the nation, one of only two in the Northwest, and the only one in Washington.

“There was a lot of competition for them,” says Valerie Streeter, water quality planner with the county’s Health and Human Services department.

“From a scientific perspective, this was a very big award,” says Dr. Dana Woodruff, senior research scientist at Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim.

Clallam County, Battelle, the Cline Irrigation District, the Clallam Ditch Co., the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, and the Clallam Conservation District are partners with the tribe.

Initial doubt

The EPA at first was doubtful that so many agencies could cooperate.

However, the organizations already had been meeting four to five times yearly for the past five years as members of the Clean Water Work Group, Streeter says.

“It shows a lot of good collaboration that we got this grant,” she says.

Clallam County commissioners last week passed an agreement with the tribe by which the salaries of six environmental-health and water-quality employees — already on the county staff — will comprise the $127,411 local match to $307,847 in federal funds for county’s part of the project.

The EPA dollars will pay three years’ salary, benefits, and job costs of a county septic operations and maintenance specialist. The conservation district also contributed more than $350,000 to help the tribe make its match.

The effort will focus largely on septic systems near creeks and streams, “on the people who have the greatest influence on this body of water,” Streeter says.

Janine Reed, the operations and maintenance specialist, will seek and find “troublesome” septic systems — many of which the county has identified on paper — and help their owners fix them.

“She’ll be knocking on doors,” Streeter says.

Reed also teaches Septic 101, a class where homeowners learn how to keep their systems working properly.

The project will consist of several areas:

* Microbial science (tracking bacteria).

* Best management practices, known as BMPs, including the special mushrooms.

* Public outreach.

* Effectiveness monitoring.

* Education and incentives for homeowners and septic system installers.

Each task includes a variety of smaller projects.

Microbial science

Scientists will trace microbes — bacteria — by collecting samples of excrement and studying its ribonucleic acid– RNA — to identify their host organisms as humans, livestock, or domestic pets.

That will enable the scientists to go to the sources of pollution and try to clean them up.

Although livestock are largely blamed for poisoning the Dungeness River and Dungeness Bay, “it’s highly likely that there are a large variety of sources,” Woodruff says.

Pet owners must learn to keep their cat or dog’s excrement from washing into creeks and streams, Streeter says.

Management practices

This is where the mushrooms — developed by the Battelle Northwest labs in Sequim — come in.

The mushrooms will be grown in the same sort of nutrients they’ll likely find when they are transplanted to a location in the watershed, say Woodruff.

“They will be conditioned to scavenge or attack fecal coliform bacteria,” the Battelle scientist says.

“The mushrooms will develop enzymes as a natural part of survival to attack or scavenge the material.”

The process is called mycoremediation.

Despite their diet, the mushrooms will not be toxic to humans, Woodruff says. Nevertheless, they will be planted in a fenced enclosure where polluted water seeps into a stream.

“It is a methodology already being used for the chemical pollution that you get from highways,” says Lyn Muench, who coordinates the project for the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe.

“Battelle is adapting it for bacteria. They’ve had one field test, so they know it works.”

Irrigation canals

Also, the Clallam Conservation District will help the irrigation district and the ditch company enclose its irrigation canals in the Carlsborg area in a single pipeline.

The result of the $250,000 effort, says Joe Holtrop, district manager, will be that water won’t evaporate from the ditches, nor will it be open to pollution.

“If done properly, there won’t be any surplus at the end of the system to flow into Dungeness Bay,” Holtrop says.

Crops will absorb all the water in the pipeline.

Effectiveness monitoring

The real aim of the study is how well these methods work — “do we see visible improvements in the water quality,” says Streeter.

The county, the Jamestown S’Klallam and Battelle all will make these determinations.

“We will be partnering in effectiveness monitoring,” says Woodruff, “to find the best management practices” — irrigation piping, fixing troublesome septic systems, mycoremediation.

“We will be monitoring for fecal coliform at sites (in streams and ditches) before and after BMPs have been tried, “she says.

“We will be monitoring upstream from our mycoremediation site and just downstream from that site to determine how effective mushrooms are at removing fecal coliform.”

The Audubon Society will conduct public workshops and tours at the Dungeness River Center at Railroad Bridge Park in Sequim to help explain the project in layman’s language.

The society even will open its own septic tank for school groups to peer into — a dramatic moment in young lives, says Muench.

There also will be displays at the center.

Visitors will learn that the EPA grants went to places that have specific water-quality problems and have proposed specific solutions, she says.

Longstanding fecal coliform pollution in the Dungeness River and Dungeness Bay, which is closed to shellfish harvesting, qualifies the watershed as such an area.

“The EPA is trying to make better progress in cleaning up polluted waters,” Muench says.

Septic system education

The grant will fund training for septic system installers in managing some of the more complicated systems.

Of more interest to homeowners are the cost incentives for them to repair ailing septic systems, especially those that are close to creeks, streams, and the river.

Other “septics of concern,” in grant language, include those over 10 years old and those that have a lengthy repair history without follow-ups.

Some residents, Streeter says, don’t even know where their drain fields are.

The grant “encourages people to look into their systems” — literally — says Streeter.

Better yet, it provides $59,000 to help people pump their septic tanks or make minor repairs. Recipients must take Septic 101, she says.

For more information about the programs, people may call Streeter at 360-417-2543, Muench at 360-681-4631, or Holtrop at 360-452-1912, Ext. 103.

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