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News / Northwest

This Tacoma waterway contains the most poop-polluted recreational waters in the PNW

By Craig Sailor, , The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) (TNS),
Published: June 2, 2024, 4:01pm

TACOMA — The Thea Foss Waterway is one of the most polluted recreational waterways in the United States, according to an environmental nonprofit that regularly tested 567 beaches and other popular sites in 2023.

The Surfrider Foundation, dedicated to clean recreational waters, found high levels of potentially dangerous bacteria in the Foss during 47 percent of its monthly testing visits. Only five sites were higher across the nation.

While the Foss situation is alarming, other water bodies didn’t fare much better, according to Surfrider. Some 64 percent of tested beaches exceeded health standards at least once during 2023. All told, 57 labs processed 9,538 water samples collected from the 567 sites.

Testing

The state Department of Ecology’s BEACH program (Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication & Health) tests waters and notifies the public when bacteria levels become high. That program runs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Surfrider’s South Sound Blue Water Task Force looks at those same spots and a few others year round, said volunteer Stena Troyer.

“Because we know people are not just playing in the water Memorial Day through Labor Day, but they’re doing polar plunges year round, kayaking and scuba diving year round,” she said.

The water testing looks for the presence of enterococci — bacteria that live in the guts of people and animals and are excreted in fecal matter.

High numbers of the bacteria can indicate dangerous levels of disease-causing viruses and protozoa — stuff you don’t want to swim in.

Alerts

When Surfrider or the Department of Ecology finds high levels of bacteria in the Foss, they notify the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. The department, in turn, notifies the public of the high contamination levels.

TPCHD has resource links on its website that cover surface-water safety as well as other links for shellfish, toxic algae and beach conditions. The closest beach monitored by the department is at Jack Hyde Park, nearly three miles from the Foss testing site.

Students from Tacoma Public School’s SAMI (Science and Math Institute) also test the water. Because their lab isn’t accredited, samples that show high levels are retested at another lab before an alert is issued, Troyer said.

Finding the source

Sampling for the Foss is done from a public dock on the eastern shore of the waterway, just south of the state Route 509 bridge. It’s a popular spot for kayakers to put in. Just over 500 feet to the south, two large storm drains empty a steady stream of water into the waterway, even when it’s not raining.

So, what’s causing the contamination?

“It could be birds, it could be wildlife, it could be dogs, it could be human wastes from leaking septic tanks or failed wastewater infrastructure,” said Liz Schotman, a Surfrider field staffer.

The city of Tacoma’s Environmental Services’ Source Control Program frequently responds to spill and complaint calls concerning surface water, according to city spokesperson Maria Lee.

“Specifically, if we are aware of potential sources causing elevated levels of bacteria (or other pollutants), we can implement various source control methods to move up the storm system to trace where a specific source may be causing the concern and what can be done to mitigate or eliminate it,” she said.

Water connections

There’s more at stake than alerting the public to pollution alerts, Troyer and Schotman said.

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Surfrider wants to connect people to the water around them, especially through recreation.

“Knowing that the water quality is clean is another connection to being in this awesome place that has this cool habitat,” Schotman said. “If you’re enjoying it, you’re more likely to take action to protect it.”

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