Nooksack River Transboundary Technical Collaboration Group 2020-2021 annual report

The Nooksack River watershed spans part of the border between British Columbia and the State of Washington. In August 2018, the international, multi-agency Nooksack River Transboundary Technical Collaboration Group (TCG) was established to implement a three-year work plan to reduce fecal bacteria concentrations in the Nooksack River watershed. The 2020-2021 TCG annual report summarizes third and final year project activities and focuses on three of the watershed's transborder sub-basins.

The Nooksack River in autumn.
The Nooksack River in autumn. Photo: Jerry McFarland (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Report description

The British Columbia (B.C.) - Washington (WA) Nooksack River Transboundary Technical Collaboration Group (TCG) formed in August 2018 to reduce fecal indicator bacteria (fecal bacteria) concentrations in the Nooksack River watershed. The TCG was established as a three–year project scheduled to end July 31, 2021.

In August 2020, the TCG began its third and final year of formally coordinated project work to reduce fecal bacteria concentrations in the Nooksack River watershed. This 2020-2021 TCG annual report summarizes third year project activities, focusing on the three Nooksack River watershed sub-basins that span the border between B.C. (Canada) and WA (United States of America).

In 2019 B.C. and WA partners set TCG project short-term and long-term border benchmarks for Escherichia coli (E. coli) concentrations. At four border monitoring locations, the short- and long-term goals were to be met by 2021 and 2024, respectively. B.C. and WA partners sample surface water at the international border to compare results to the established benchmarks.

B.C. data analysis shows that 2020 dry and wet season E. coli concentrations met the short-term border benchmark at the Fishtrap Creek border site. The Pepin Brook border site met the short-term benchmark in the dry season but not the wet season. Cave Creek met the border benchmark in the wet season but not the dry season. Bertrand Creek border sites failed to meet the short-term benchmark in both the wet and dry season. B.C. and WA data analysis for 2020-2021 noted an increase in fecal bacteria concentrations in the Bertrand, Pepin, and Fishtrap sub-basins when compared to the prior two years. Analysis of the past three years of data continues to demonstrate the impacts of rainfall, and thus season, on fecal bacteria concentrations.

The Nooksack River is the largest freshwater source to Portage Bay and to the Lummi Nation’s Portage Bay Shellfish Growing Area. Portions of the Portage Bay Shellfish Growing Area are classified as Approved and Conditionally Approved for commercial shellfish harvest. The Conditionally Approved portion of the shellfish growing area remains closed to harvest from October-December each year due elevated concentrations of fecal coliform in the marine water during the fall and early winter season. Portage Bay’s 2020 Annual Growing Area evaluation assessed a 30-sample dataset through December 2020 for the growing area’s marine monitoring stations. The evaluation determined that five Portage Bay Shellfish Growing Area water monitoring stations are threatened with a downgrade in classification.

During the past year, B.C. and WA continued to collect water samples in the Nooksack River watershed to help identify locations of potential fecal bacteria sources. Agencies acted on complaints, offered technical assistance to help landowners control fecal bacteria sources, and conducted regulatory compliance activities. Both jurisdictions engaged commercial and non-commercial agricultural, rural residential, and suburban community members through non-regulatory education and outreach. During the final TCG project year, COVID-19 restrictions altered the way agencies delivered outreach and stewardship activities. B.C. and WA partners shared communication plans and materials and promoted similar spring 2021 outreach materials on both sides of the border.

The TCG Terms of Reference documented a project purpose to “reduce fecal coliform bacteria contamination at transboundary stream locations of the Nooksack Watershed.” Based on results compiled through the project’s third year we did not achieve the project’s short-term border benchmark at all border locations and have not reached Approved classification throughout the Portage Bay Shellfish Growing Area during the three-year project period. The Nooksack River continues to deposit fecal bacteria into Portage Bay where portions of the Lummi Nation’s Shellfish Growing Area fail to meet standards to allow year-round shellfish harvesting. We continue to measure high bacteria concentrations throughout this shared watershed.

TCG project partners know finding and fixing sources of nonpoint pollution often take time and require follow up to educate, encourage, support, and confirm sustained source control and regulatory compliance. The three-year workplan did not anticipate that over a year of COVID-19 precautions would restrict staff’s ability to perform field work and to engage and support residents in finding and fixing bacteria pollution sources. TCG partners see value in continued collaborative efforts within a shared watershed to support related natural resource protection initiatives and activities. Acknowledging the value of coordination, multi-year commitment, and dedicated resources, this report identifies ongoing commitments and recommendations beyond July 31, 2021 toward improving water quality and protecting public health across boundaries.

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