Paul Rochon points out the new septic systems being installed on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Paul Rochon points out the new septic systems being installed on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

On Camano shore contaminated by feces, locals blame lack of oversight

Years of frustration led some Camano Island residents to build their own sewage system. It’s set to start pumping this month.

CAMANO ISLAND — A skull and crossbones greets visitors to Maple Grove Boat Launch on Camano Island.

The red-and-black sign warns visitors not to eat butter and varnish clams in big bold block letters: “DANGER.”

A culvert near the ramp is contaminated, with water flowing from it testing at hundreds of times the acceptable level for fecal coliform in surface water. Locals say that is a clear sign sewage from nearby septic systems is leaking into the groundwater, though the actual cause has not been determined.

In 2017, the contamination peaked at 315 times the acceptable levels for surface water.

On Island County’s 196 miles of shoreline, how many other beaches are dealing with similar issues? It’s hard to say.

At least 14 sites were being monitored by the county as of 2021, but oversight of septic systems in places like Camano Island — where there is no unified sewer system — is sporadic and often depends on residents making the reports themselves.

Island County is comprised of Camano and Whidbey Island.

Asked for more recent figures at Maple Grove, Island County Public Health Director Shawn Morris said: “Surface Water Quality Testing sites and swimming beach sampling sites are rotated regularly, and we need additional time to review records for the range specified.”

Maple Grove, a public clam, mussel and oyster beach, is closed for harvesting any species. It has been closed for around three years, locals said. Swimming in dirty water can cause outbreaks of typhoid fever, hepatitis and dysentery, among other diseases. Exposure can result in ear, eye and other infections.

Runoff spews into Puget Sound, near the edge of the Island, Skagit and Snohomish county lines.

Kara Kostanich, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said the agency has been monitoring the site for fecal coliform for years.

Water flows out into the ocean from Maple Grove Boat Launch on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Water flows out into the ocean from Maple Grove Boat Launch on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Like a stream’

Paul Rochon, a neighbor who served on the Maple Grove Water Association’s board, said he has witnessed kids playing in the water and dogs drinking out of the storm drain.

“It’s like a stream to them,” said Rochon, who also worked for Marysville as a code enforcement officer.

Kayakers use the ramp frequently. People launching motor boats churn up the water. There is nothing posted specifically about sewage contamination in the water, only general warnings not to eat shellfish. Island County even has a lifejacket kiosk there.

“The sign warning against shellfish harvesting at that location was replaced due to wear on 4/3, and a yellow caution sign was posted 7/12 sharing bacteria levels and advising against water recreation,” Morris wrote in an email.

The boat ramp is tucked into a small neighborhood, with vacation homes and rentals just feet away. About 40 homes sit around the boat launch, with some of those occupied full-time. Island County testing showed higher fecal coliform levels in the summer, peak season for seaside tourism.

This summer, the beach smells rancid, covered in dead sea life and the leftovers from crabbing. Residents said little to nothing has been done to try to solve the problem.

“The county, to date, has not tried to figure out where the pollutants are coming from,” Rochon said.

A public records request for “red-tagged” homes — those shut down due to septic system issues or other issues where a building cannot be occupied — showed zero results on Camano Island between 2012 and 2020.

Island residents rely on septic systems for their waste, a precarious position for an island where people prize their waterfront views.

Rochon and Betsy Shields are two residents who have helped spearhead an unusual task of putting together their own private neighborhood sewer system. When it turns on in the next few weeks, it will initially serve five homes or “27 bedrooms” — the way the project measures its capacity. If all goes well, Rochon hopes to expand the project to include more homes.

It has already cost north of $1 million to get to this stage. The benefit, Rochon said, is that sewage is farther back from the shore and better treatment of wastewater.

Rochon and Shields are also hoping when their homes occasionally flood, the aftermath doesn’t smell like raw sewage. Mostly, they just want to clean up their neighborhood.

“This is ruining the beach,” Rochon said. “I actually had a person that was doing the samplings way back say to me, ‘You could have taken a dump in this and it wouldn’t have changed the numbers very much.’”

Fecal levels measured from 2015 to 2018 on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Fecal levels measured from 2015 to 2018 on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Money, sure, would help’

Rochon first heard about water quality issues at the boat ramp in 2012, when he and his friend Jim Shields were serving on the board of the Maple Grove Water Association.

The problem, in Rochon’s eyes, is largely due to what he sees as lack of county oversight on septic systems. Island County, he said, simply does not have a solution.

Trying to get the county to see the urgency immediately put the pair at odds with Rick Hannold, one of the Island County commissioners at the time. Rochon and Jim Shields were frustrated and once went to his office to talk to him about the issue.

“He kicked us out because we were questioning him,” Rochon said. “I think I might have mentioned the part about, ‘You know about this now, something’s got to be done, because someone could die and you could go to jail.’ He got irate and kicked us out of his office.”

Hannold did not respond to a request for comment.

It was around that time, over coffee, that Rochon and Shields began to plan their own sewer system.

They painstakingly stitched together a plan. They contacted local homeowners and sent lots of emails. With their backgrounds in local government — Shields served as Everett’s parks manager for years, Rochon was a fire commissioner — they knew it was likely going to be a long process.

But even then, they were surprised by just how many speed bumps they hit. The county lost permitting paperwork. At one point, the county asked Rochon for the originals of certain documents. Rochon had already sent in notarized copies. Staff never found them, so they had to do it all again.

Communication has gotten better with Island County more recently, Rochon said, and he specifically named Island County commissioner Janet St. Clair as a big help.

“As part of the permitting, environmental public health has worked with the community to set out parameters by which data can be gathered to ensure the system doesn’t cause any degradation to the drinking water aquifer in the area, while providing a septic solution for multiple households,” Morris wrote in an email. “This data collection process will likely benefit future shoreline communities as they look for solutions to sea-level rise.”

Still, it shouldn’t have taken this long for anything to be done about the project, Rochon said.

“It would have been nice if the county came out wanting to be partners and run this through and get it done.” Rochon said. “Money, sure, would help, but just the support and the time — I mean we’re talking what, how many years now?”

A kayaker launches from the Maple Grove Boat Launch on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A kayaker launches from the Maple Grove Boat Launch on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Can’t tell you where to swim’

As Rochon and Shields worked on their plan, the county continued testing the water for fecal coliform.

The state Department of Ecology had no comment beyond the information posted by Island County. Ecology does not have a monitoring site in the area, an agency spokesperson noted.

In August 2017, a test found fecal coliform at 31,500 parts per million. Island County surface water standards set the limit at 100 parts per million.

Water contaminated by feces can also pose a threat to aquatic wildlife. Some reports suggest the bacteria can lower the water’s oxygen levels, potentially killing fish and other animals.

“Sewage going into Puget Sound is a serious issue,”said Scott Berbells, a manager with the Shellfish Growing Area Section in the state Office of Environmental Health & Safety. “Not only for our program, but for public health.”

When asked specifically what has been done, Morris said the county has let people know it’s an issue.

“Our staff have provided public notification through signage at the impacted area,” Morris said. “We also actively engage in outreach to provide community members with current information related to recreational hazards across Island County, including swimming and shellfish harvesting safety.”

Berbells said the agency is “concerned” but does not have any indication septic systems are failing.

Berbells said when the drainage water enters the marine water near the boat landing, the fecal coliform disperses and dilutes, lowering the risk of illness and infection. Still, Berbells urged caution.

“I can’t tell you where to swim, where not to swim, where to kayak, where not to kayak. But I can tell you that the bacteria levels in this range are very high,” he said. “And I wouldn’t advise anyone to play in this drainage.”

Paul Rochon walks through details of Maple Grove septic project on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Paul Rochon walks through details of Maple Grove septic project on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Not compliant systems’

Five years ago, Jim Shields died in a car crash. His widow, Betsy, has helped Rochon continue the sewer project.

They began putting out bids for the project in 2015. It took seven years to get the final permits. Contractors were still putting the finishing touches on the construction site in early August.

The area also holds Indigenous historical significance and was likely inhabited by the KiKiallus. An archeologist was required to be on site during digging. The cost was $800 per day, Rochon said.

An easement with a property owner at the top of the hill gave them space to build a storage tank for sewage.

The sewer itself is part gravity system. Pipes and pumps lead to a common tank that a disposal service will empty. Rochon said he expects the project to be completed by the end of the month. He hopes to add more neighbors to the system in the future.

Some houses are bigger, necessitating a larger septic system.

Not everyone in the neighborhood has signed up. Buying into the system cost over $33,000 when Rochon sent emails to area residents in 2019. The system is operating as three separate LLCs and a nonprofit, Rochon said. There’s also a six-person governing board that will be responsible for maintenance.

Not all of the septic systems on Camano Island conform to current regulations, Rochon said. Some of the island’s 17,000 residents are responsible for their own inspections.

“The systems were built for periodical, weekend use,” he said. “They’re not compliant systems.”

So over a decade and $1 million later, Rochon hopes all their work makes a lasting impact. They want a clean beach and clean water around their homes.

“As a community,” Rochon said, “we just want to leave something for our grandkids.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046;; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460;; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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