WA state’s annual report on public marine beach safety is in. How did Whatcom County do?

Washington state’s annual assessment of the water safety at public marine beach areas is in — and there’s good news for most of the 59 beaches sampled during the 2022 season.

The Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication & Health program, or BEACH, found that 91.5 percent of marine beaches sampled in 2022 were at passing levels for safety. That represents a 14.5% improvement from 2021, one of the worst years on record. In fact, 2015 was the last time that safety levels were as poor.

BEACH monitors and checks for fecal matter to ensure safe swimming levels. Fecal matter can come from dogs, humans, seagulls and seals. The areas being monitored are sampled repeatedly between Memorial Day and Labor Day every year.

People who are kayaking, swimming, scuba diving or windsurfing can get sick with ailments like a skin rash, gastroenteritis, upper respiratory infections and other illnesses if the water has an unsafe level of fecal matter.

BEACH Annual Report Summary for sampling year 2022.
BEACH Annual Report Summary for sampling year 2022.

A beach with unsafe levels can be also be a risk for people who are just walking along the shore beachcombing or shellfishing. There’s an even greater risk for children and people who are immunocompromised. Pets can also be affected.

The BEACH program is run under the Washington State Department of Ecology, and monitors marine water for swimming and playing through partnerships with counties and local partners like the Surfrider Foundation.

The BEACH annual report evaluates the previous year of sampling for safe levels of fecal matter. The sampled beaches from the 2022 report are in 12 counties throughout the state, including Pierce, Thurston, King and Whatcom counties.

A beach is considered passing if it has no more than one sampling event that exceeds the swimming standard.

How do you know if a marine beach is safe?

Aside from minding warning signs that are posted when testing levels say a beach isn’t safe, it’s recommended to check the BEACH monitoring website’s interactive map for updates.

Places with a closure are marked in red, caution areas are yellow and locations that are safe are marked in green.

When you’re at a beach and coming into contact with sand and water, even if you aren’t swimming, it’s recommended to keep your hands washed, especially if you are eating or drinking.

Beachcombers walk on the rocks at low tide at Larrabee State Park, south of Bellingham, in 2009.
Beachcombers walk on the rocks at low tide at Larrabee State Park, south of Bellingham, in 2009.

How did Whatcom County beaches do in 2022?

Whatcom County is home to four marine beach areas that are monitored by Ecology’s BEACH program. They include:

Birch Bay County Beach Park

A 4.1-acre waterfront park with views of Birch Bay is known for its kite festival, sand sculpture competition and more. In 2020 and 2021 the park was closed for improvements, but opened again in 2022. The Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce regularly posts updates about events.

Birch Bay Beach Park was sampled a total of eight times during the 2022 sampling season by the Whatcom County Health Department. The park met the standard for “excellent” for all testing periods.

Larrabee State Park

Nestled on the seaward side of Chuckanut Mountain, Larrabee State Park sits on Samish Bay with views of the San Juan Islands. The 2,748-acre park offers boating, shellfishing, diving and more. The 8,100 feet of saltwater beach is near train tracks that see over a dozen trains a day go past.

Larrabee was sampled 14 times during the 2022 monitoring season by volunteers from the Surfrider Foundation. Two of those samples, on July 18 and Aug. 1, exceeded the safe standard for swimming. Subsequent sampling after the July 18 event showed better results. Resampling after the Aug. 1 event showed that the results were still high, which triggered an advisory. All other sampling periods met the safe swimming standard.

Little Squalicum Park beach

This park and marine area just off Eldridge Avenue have been undergoing improvements in recent years, but it still has “consistent to low bacteria levels,” according to Ecology, and, from time to time, it has high bacteria spikes. This beach has a permanent swimming advisory because of that.

Of the nine times Little Squalicum Park beach was sampled in the 2022 season by Surfrider Foundation volunteers, there were three events when the water exceeded safe swimming levels. On June 6, June 14 and June 27 the water quality at the beach was above the EPA standards. Other sampling events in 2022 found that the water met safe swimming standards.

Port of Bellingham Marine Park

This 1.9-acre waterfront park in Fairhaven near the Bellingham Cruise Terminal offers kayaking, beachcombing and a renovated picnic shelter.

The Whatcom County Health Department sampled the beach eight times in the 2022 sampling season. The results showed the beach had “very good” water quality for all sampling events and met the standard for safe swimming.