Health - Public Health News

Posted on: November 1, 2023

Why Does Terrell Creek Stink?

Whatcom County Public Works has recently received multiple inquiries about Terrell Creek. The sight and smell of the water may seem like cause for concern; however, the conditions are actually a natural seasonal occurrence caused by a lack of rain in the late summer/early fall. Bacterial and algal growth occurs when water levels are low, slow-moving, warm, and nutrient-rich. Every summer, there is also a buildup of decaying organic matter like seaweed in Birch Bay and lower Terrell Creek. These natural conditions generate strong sulfur smells, surface films, and unusual colors in the creek. The extent and severity of the smell and murkiness varies annually, and this year has been particularly noticeable. The issues will resolve, and the creek will return to its typical look and smell once the fall rains start flushing out the waterways. 

We have been responding to citizen reports of unusual sheens, smells, and colors in Terrell Creek over the past few months. Staff have not found any conditions to date that are cause for concern; however, keeping kids and pets out of the water is still a good idea until it’s no longer stagnant and stinky.

The conditions described above do not need to be reported; however, there are a few observations that are important to report:

  1. If you see bright blue or green algae coating the surface of the water, it could be a harmful algal bloom and should be reported to the Whatcom County Health Department by emailing [email protected] or calling 360-778-6000
  2. If you see dead fish or shellfish carcasses, report them to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife at
  3. If you see a spill of hazardous material, oil, sewage, or an activity that is causing pollution, it should be reported in one of the following ways:
    1. Click here to report an environmental issue to the Washington State Department of Ecology, call 360-255-4400, or email [email protected]
    2. Click here to ask a question or report a problem to Whatcom County Public Works; call 360-778-6230 or email [email protected].
    3. For emergencies, call 911 

Here are some additional resources and tips:

  1. Organic matter, like bacteria, can create a natural sheen or surface film that looks like an oil sheen. A simple way to tell the difference is to throw a rock or poke a stick into the film. Natural sheens break up into small fragments. Petroleum sheens will quickly reform and are more likely to have a rainbow color.
    1. Water Sheens Facts (BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change)
  2. Sulfur-loving bacteria thrive in the summer. These bacteria may be pink or white and smell like sulfur. Decaying seaweed and aquatic vegetation also add to the stink. Learn more about the causes of beach odors:
    1. Saltwater Beach Odors fact sheet (Washington Dept. of Ecology)
    2. What Is That Smell? (Birch Bay Water and Sewer District)
  3. Who is monitoring the water quality?
    1. Whatcom County Public Works staff sample the creek and other locations in the watershed twice a month to monitor fecal coliform bacteria levels. The results are posted on this map and on this website at least monthly. 
    2. Whatcom County Health & Community Services staff monitor water quality for swimming in Birch Bay between Memorial Day and Labor Day as part of their BEACH program. 
    3. Whatcom County Health & Community Services staff regularly monitor for marine biotoxins (poisons produced by certain kinds of microscopic algae) and close shellfish harvesting areas when unsafe levels are detected. Check the Shellfish Safety Map for beach closures and advisories on the day you plan to harvest shellfish.

Cross-posted from Public Health - News Channel
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