Issaquah, Tibbetts water quality is good, but concerns remain

August 23, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Michael Friel, 10, brushes dirt off a curb, as his dad Mike (left), Molly Caskey and her son Ian, 10, glue the back of a Puget Sound Starts Here tile to glue next to a storm drain in the Issaquah Highlands. By Greg Farrar

The creeks crisscrossing Issaquah remain in good condition, despite increased construction nearby, a population boom in the surrounding watershed and, alongside both developments, more potential for pollution.

The water quality in Issaquah and Tibbetts creeks is good, although storm water runoff causes the quality in both creeks to decline. Tibbetts Creek is more affected than Issaquah Creek, in large part due to the pollutant-laden runoff from buildings, streets and other manmade structures in the business district along Northwest Gilman Boulevard.

City Surface Water Manager Kerry Ritland detailed the conditions in the recent State of Our Waters report — a briefing about water quality monitoring conducted last year and in 2009.

Concerns also remain about elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria — a byproduct from livestock and pets — and low levels of dissolved oxygen in the streams. Fish cannot breathe as easily if the water contains insufficient levels of dissolved oxygen.

Other pollutants, such as copper, lead and other dissolved metals — a toxic hazard to fish — occurred in small but acceptable amounts. Teams did not detect pesticides or herbicides in Issaquah Creek, but detected a low concentration of herbicide in a single sample from Tibbetts Creek.

“The waters are not too bad in our local creeks, but there are concerns — occasional violations of water-quality standards — and we strive to eventually achieve better conditions over time,” Ritland said. “It takes time to make improvements.”

Teams started monitoring water quality in Issaquah and Tibbetts creeks on a regular basis 12 years ago. The city released the last such report in 2007 to include data collected from 2003-06.

In the meantime, state lawmakers enacted regulations on copper in automotive brake pads, phosphorous in dish detergents and other potential contaminants.

The city also embarked on measures to control pollution at sources — such as businesses using harmful materials — and restore habitat along the creeks. The effort requires patience, because some processes require years or decades to produce measurable results.

“It’s hard to get a complete picture because it’s so variable,” Ritland said. “So, the more data you get, the better picture you get. It takes awhile.”

Though major floods can cause problems, as pollutants and sediments rush into creeks, storm water runoff is a more consistent issue.

“The water quality seems pretty consistent otherwise,” Ritland said. “It’s more affected by rainfall, water washing off streets and getting into the streams.”

Clean up after pets

The waste contains hazardous organisms and can cause contamination in local streams, rivers and lakes. Runoff after rain carries fecal coliform bacteria in doo-doo into storm drains, ditches and streams feeding local rivers, lakes and Puget Sound. The bacteria in waste can make water unsafe to swim in or drink.

The public awareness campaign from Puget Sound Starts Here reminds pet owners to keep yards clean of pet waste by scooping at least once a week, if possible, and carrying a plastic bag to scoop and dispose of poop. Plus, not picking up dog waste on public property is illegal.

Learn more tips to prevent Puget Sound pollution at Or watch a humorous public-service announcement about cleaning up after pets, titled “Dog Doogity,” from musician Martin Luther, at

On the Web

Learn more about the regional effort to clean up Puget Sound at the Puget Sound Partnership website,

From the creeks to the sound

Experts said the efforts to assess and address problems in Issaquah creeks fit into a regional push to clean up Puget Sound.

“Issaquah Creek is what people in that region can directly control, and then they have a secondary effect on Puget Sound itself,” said Mindy Roberts, a state Department of Ecology environmental engineer. “Cleaning up the watershed piece by piece, in efforts like what’s happening in Issaquah Creek, that’s really what has to happen.”

The city joined a study early in the last decade to determine sources of contaminants in Issaquah Creek. The report, released in 2004, listed storm water runoff and discharge from septic systems as major pollution sources in the stream.

Other data collected in Puget Sound and tributaries point to human activity as the major culprit for pollution in the sound and related waterways.

“Overall what it shows, which is not surprising, is that most problems occur and the largest concentrations of these contaminants occur where people occur,” Roberts said. “It’s where we live, where we work, where we play, where we drive. When those areas are most concentrated then, not surprisingly, that’s where we see the issues.”

State lawmakers created a state agency, the Puget Sound Partnership, to spearhead cleanup and restoration efforts. In recent years, the emphasis shifted from confronting industrial polluters to addressing how everyday behaviors — such as fertilizing lawns or washing cars — can affect Puget Sound.

“Most people know that Puget Sound is something they want to protect and if they’re given ways to try to help do that, they will,” said Susan Zemek, communications manager for the Tacoma-based agency.

The effort includes a public awareness campaign, Puget Sound Starts Here, to remind the 4 million people in the 12 counties surrounding the sound about the link between storm drains, waterways and Puget Sound.

The campaign is encouraging people to scoop up and toss pet waste into the trash, because scientists said doo-doo is a major source of fecal coliform bacteria in local lakes and streams.

“It’s surprising, because it’s just one little dog, but then when you add that up across the number of dogs that we have in the Puget Sound region, it really adds up to quite a bit,” Roberts said. “It may not be something that’s 100 percent of the problem, but it’s certainly a controllable part of the problem.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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