Washington farmers hire lab to connect bacteria to species

A northwest Washington farmer works on a field at a dairy near Scott Ditch in Whatcom County. Farmer-led watershed improvement districts have hired a microbiologist to test water and pinpont the sources of bacteria polluting downstream shellfish beds.

Six farmer-led watershed improvement districts in dairy-rich Whatcom County in northwest Washington have hired a laboratory to conduct unprecedented research to pinpoint who or what is to blame for fecal pollution fouling downstream shellfish beds.

The question is fraught with legal and political implications for dairies, which have been subjected to increased regulations and threats of lawsuits, but note other sources of fecal matter, such as the thousands of ducks, geese and swans that use their fields.

“I’ve let farmers know, ‘This could point the finger at you.’ That could happen,” said microbiologist Kent Oostra, owner of Exact Scientific Services of Ferndale, Wash.

The watershed districts, public bodies organized by farmers, have pooled $18,000 to fund the research. The pilot project could be the forerunner of larger state-funded projects to identify species-specific sources of fecal coliform.

Oostra’s laboratory this month plans to begin testing the DNA in bacteria drawn from Scott Ditch, which drains farmland, residential areas and a small wildlife refuge south of Lynden. The ditch runs into the Nooksack River, which empties into Portage Bay, where fecal coliform has closed Lummi Indian shellfish beds.

Fred Likkel, a water consultant to the districts, said he believes dairies have been disproportionately blamed for pollution, but that the DNA project is meant to find problems, not vindicate farmers.

“We’ve been really open that this is a tool to find out what the issues are and to deal with them, regardless of what or who they are,” said Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers.

Andrea Hood, coordinator of the state’s Whatcom Clean Water Program, said livestock, horses, pets, wildlife and septic tanks all contribute to the problem, but their relative contributions have not been ranked.

“I’ll be interested to see what the results are and see how we can all benefit from the study,” she said. “If it’s going to help better identify how to really make water-quality improvements, that’s going to be useful for sure.”

Oostra said there is no guarantee the research will precisely differentiate fecal coliform sources.

It’s established practice to test water for a specific source of DNA — a particular fish, for example, he said. But this research will try to develop profiles for everything in the ditch, Oostra said.

“It’s going to be so much information,” he said.

From a scientific standpoint, “the worst-case scenario is you can’t blame anybody because everything looks the same,” he said. “We don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Oostra said he hopes to have some results to report in three months.

Jeffrey James of the Lummi Indian Business Council said the project could yield information beneficial to the tribe.

South Lynden Watershed Improvement District President Ed Blok, a dairy farmer, said the tests will point out everybody’s “bacterial footprint,” including migratory waterfowl.

“The large flocks of swans, geese and ducks turn grass fields to mud and, of course leave their waste behind,” he said in a written statement. “Cow manure on the other hand has to be carefully contained and managed.”

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