Water Quality Improvement Project
Nooksack Watershed:
Fecal Coliform


The Nooksack River basin is located in northwestern Washington State between the city of Bellingham and the Canadian border. The basin covers approximately 825 square miles of diverse geography, mainly in Whatcom County. It is situated between the northwestern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, flowing through foothills and lowlands to Bellingham Bay. The major land use in the lowlands region is agriculture, mainly dairies and raspberry growers. In the smaller cities of the Nooksack basin, the major industry is farming and timber management. In the rural areas, most of the houses rely on septic systems for their sewage treatment.

At the mouth of the Nooksack River is the Lummi Indian Reservation. They, along with the Nooksack tribes, maintain usual and accustomed fishing and shellfishing rights within the basin.

Water quality issues

Water quality studies and sampling showed high levels of fecal coliform pollution, particularly from human and animal sources.

Why this matters

Fecal coliform pollution, or bacteria for short, can indicate the presence of such pathogens as e. coli. This bacteria, from human and animal waste, can get into our waters from untreated or partially treated discharges from wastewater treatment plants, from improperly functioning septic systems, wildlife and from unknown sources. It can make people sick and cause the closure of shellfish harvesting beds. Fecal coliform pollution has been responsible for numerous shellfishing restrictions throughout Puget Sound.

People can help keep bacteria out of the water. Bag and trash dog poop. Check your on-site sewage system to make sure it is maintained and working properly.

What is being done

Ecology, working with the Department of Health, local governments, and citizens developed a strategy to clean up the lower Nooksack River. The strategy encompasses dairy waste management; municipal sewage treatment; rural residential septic waste; critical areas ordinance enforcement, and other actions like streamside re-vegetation and other best management practices (BMPs). Monitoring is used to check the progress of these actions to improve water quality.

Status of the project

Shellfish beds in Portage Bay continue to be open for shellfish harvesting, but recent declines in the water quality of the Nooksack River at Marine Drive, and failure of several tributaries to the Nooksack to meet water quality standards have raised concerns about the future with the Portage Bay Shellfish Committee. At the June 2009 meeting of the Committee, setting new implementation targets was discussed for the agencies involved with implementing the TMDL.

Technical information

Water Quality Assessment of the Nooksack River between Brennan and North Cedarville Report (Ecology publication)

Lower Nooksack River Basin Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load Evaluation (Ecology publication)

Nooksack River Watershed Bacteria -- Total Maximum Daily Load Submittal Report (Ecology publication)

Nooksack River Watershed Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load -- Detailed Implementation Plan (Ecology publication)

Wasteload Allocation (WLA) Clarification Letter (PDF)

Related information

Fishtrap Creek Total Maximum Daily Load Study (Ecology Publication)

Focus Sheet: Lower Nooksack River -- Cleaning up water pollution (Ecology publication)

WRIA 01: Nooksack Watershed Information (Environmental Assessment Program website)


Back to top of page

Last updated March 2012
  Water resource inventory area (WRIA) 1 map, Washington State.


WRIA(s): #1 (Nooksack)
County: Whatcom

Water-body Name:
Nooksack River Watershed

Fecal coliform bacteria

# of TMDLs: 20

TMDL approved by EPA
Has an implementation plan

Contact Info:
Steve Hood
Phone: 360-715-5211
Email: Steve.Hood@ecy.wa.gov

Bellingham Field Office
Department of Ecology
1440 - 10th St., Suite 102
Bellingham, WA 98225-7028