September 25, 2008

Scientists See Red Over Pollution in Creek


James Kardouni, a state environmental scientist, dumps nontoxic dye into Burnt Bridge Creek on Wednesday. By tracking the flow of the dye, he hopes to learn where shade trees might be planted and pinpoint sources of pollution.

James Kardouni poured a jug of red fluorescent dye into Burnt Bridge Creek at 9:38 a.m. Wednesday.

Kardouni, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Ecology, expected it would take about 20 hours for the greatly dissipated cloud to arrive 2 miles downstream. A highly sensitive probe will measure the cloud's progress, completing one of the first steps toward addressing pollution in the most urbanized creek in Clark County.

"The goal isn't to get it to what it was before people settled here," said Tonnie Cummings, who is coordinating the restoration effort for the Department of Ecology. "The goal is to get it into compliance with water quality standards."

The creek violates federal Clean Water Act standards in three major ways: The level of fecal coliform is too high for human health; dissolved oxygen is too low to support aquatic life; and the water is too warm to sustain salmon.

For his experiment, Kardouni staked out a pedestrian bridge at Beaver Marsh Park, a 32-acre natural area in east Vancouver about 1,000 feet downstream from where the creek passes under Interstate 205.

By tracing the dye's progress during the lowest flow period of the year, scientists may identify areas where tree plantings might best shade and cool the creek. They also may pinpoint sources of pollution such as leaking septic tanks.

Like Forrest Gump's famous box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.

Humans not always to blame

Earlier this month, the city of Washougal measured a high count of fecal coliform in a tiny creek running through east Washougal to the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge. City and county officials meticulously tracked the cause to an open area near Campen Creek.

The source? A spot used by raccoons as a common latrine.

"We thought it was probably a septic tank or a leaky sewer main," said Jim Dunn, Washougal's assistant public works director. "The tendency is to always think it's sewage - human sewage. A lot of times, it's not, anymore."

Burnt Bridge Creek is not unusual in terms of water quality violations.

Statewide, temperature violations account for the largest single category of water quality violations - 29 percent of the total. Fecal coliform is next, at 24 percent. And dissolved oxygen violations account for 20 percent of all listings.

"In a county growing as rapidly as we are, it's really challenging to deal with the increased growth and construction, and at the same time clean up the rivers," Cummings said earlier this year.

Ecology began an in-depth profile of the creek in May of this year. The agency has tabbed an advisory committee made up of city and county representatives, local interest groups and private citizens to help formulate an action plan and put it into place by 2012.

Cummings said she's confident state and local groups can find ways to improve water quality, despite continued urban development.

"We have to be optimistic," she said..

Originally published by ERIK ROBINSON Columbian staff writer.

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