Water Quality Improvement Projects
Whatcom Creeks Area:


Whatcom, Squalicum and Padden Creeks all flow into Bellingham Bay. They are popular places for people to play, fish and sightsee. Trails and parks are located along all three creeks. (See Study Area map)

Water quality issues


Whatcom, Squalicum, and Padden Creeks are on the Washington State 303(d) list for impaired waters for temperature. Summer temperatures warm the water in the creeks above the 60.8°F (16°C) temperature that is optimal for fish in the summer.

Fecal coliform

Whatcom Squalicum and Padden Creeks are on the Washington State 303(d) list for impaired waters for fecal coliform bacteria. Bacteria concentrations exceed 200 colony forming units (cfu)/100 ml more than 10 percent of the time.

Why this matters

Fecal coliform

Fecal coliform is a type of bacteria common in human and animal waste. It indicates that sewage or manure is entering a water body. As the level of fecal coliform increases the risk of people getting sick from playing or working in the water increases. Bacteria can get into our waters from untreated discharges from leaking sewer lines, from improperly functioning septic systems, and from livestock, pets and wildlife.

Everybody can help keep water safe by:

  • Reporting water that smells like sewage or detergent that flows to streams or storm drains so that human sources are discovered and eliminated.
  • Picking up pet waste both at home and in public places.
  • Keeping trash cans covered, and picking up spills to discourage scavengers.


Water temperature influences what types of organisms can live in a water body. Cooler water can hold more dissolved oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to breathe. Warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen. Many fish need cold, clean water to survive.

One way to cool water temperature is to shade the water body by adding or retaining streamside vegetation.

Status of the projects


In 2002 the city of Bellingham collected data to calibrate models to predict the temperature of Whatcom Creek. When we analyzed the data we found that warm water from Lake Whatcom cooled as it passed through Whatcom Falls park, but then warmed as it traveled from Woburn Street to Dupont Street. Peak daily temperatures exceeded the state surface water quality standards' numeric criteria of 16 °C (60.8 °F) during the summer. The numeric criteria is the temperature that would be optimal for aquatic life we expect to live in the water body. This is very common in lowland western Washington streams. The criteria are established to provide optimal habitat for aquatic life.

In summer in lowland western Washington natural conditions frequently do not support the optimal conditions. For temperature we consider the natural condition the temperature the creek would be if it has fully vegetated banks. When that is the case, we set the natural conditions as the criteria. In the case of Whatcom creek a calculation of how much shade would result from natural vegetated stream side is set as a target to achieve natural summer time temperatures.

In 2008 the Environmental Protection Agency gave Ecology a grant to try establishing temperature TMDLs where we expect that providing shade is the solution to correcting warm streams. We selected Squalicum and Padden creeks. The work that was done on Whatcom Creek showed that the numeric criteria are not achievable, which meant we could instead look at how much shade is achievable and set that as our target.

When the shade targets are met on Whatcom, Squalicum and Padden creeks, the water will likely warm to higher than optimal temperatures for fish but it will not warm beyond the natural temperature for those stream.

Stormwater improvements that focus on infiltration in the city of Bellingham will make the water a bit better habitat. The effect of increasing the amount of rainfall that is stored as groundwater and flows into the streams in the summer was not quantified, but will cool streams a small amount in addition to the cooling provided by shade.

Ecology prepared a draft TMDL that shows how much shade we expect to be provided on different parts of the three creeks. We believe that the existing buffers on the stream can provide that level of shade when they are fully vegetated. The public comment period for the TMDL ended on June 8, 2011. After addressing the comments received and finalizing the document, the TMDL was submitted to EPA for approval on June 30, 2011. EPA approved the temperature TMDL on August 18, 2011.

Fecal coliform

In 2002 the city of Bellingham started collecting water samples to determine levels of fecal coliform in Whatcom Creek and its tributaries. Ecology published a draft TMDL in 2006. That TMDL was never completed. Analysis of additional data that has been collected gives us an even better idea of how much bacteria needs to be reduced. A revised draft TMDL will be published and available for public comment. Information on the public comment period will be on this page when it is available.

Technical information

Fecal coliform

Whatcom Creek Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load Study (Ecology publication)

Whatcom Creek Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load Report: Water Quality Improvement Plan -- DRAFT (Ecology publication)


Whatcom, Squalicum, and Padden Creeks Temperature Total Maximum Daily Load: Water Quality Improvement Report (Ecology publication)

Related information

Focus on Urban Stream Temperature: Several Creeks Flowing to Bellingham Bay Need Your Help (Ecology publication)

Focus on Whatcom Creek (Ecology publication)

WRIA 1: Nooksack Watershed Information (Water web site)


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Last updated December 2011
  Water resource inventory area (WRIA) 1 map, Washington State.


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

Water-body Names:
Padden Creek
Squalicum Creek
Whatcom Creek

Fecal Coliform

# of TMDLs:
Temperature - 8

Temperature TMDL approved by EPA

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