With local clam harvesting shut down since 2014 because of bacterial pollution, dairy farmers and Lummi tribal leaders are partnering to clean up Portage Bay in Whatcom County.
LUMMI RESERVATION — For more than two years now, Lummi Nation has been unable to reliably open its prime clam beds on its reservation for harvest because of bacterial pollution in Portage Bay near Bellingham.
Now in an unusual leap of faith, tribal leaders and seven family dairy-farm operators in Whatcom County are launching a collaborative effort to clean up the bay.
Negotiations on the agreement began in 2015 to stave off potential litigation by the tribe against dairy farmers.
The dairy farmers have agreed to visits by mutually agreed-upon experts, including Lummi technical and policy staff, to learn if their dairy operations are polluting, and to devise a fix.
Contributions from the first seven farms signing up and the dairy industry will make an initial payment toward more than $1.1 million in damages from the lost clam seasons in 2014 through 2016, as well as for restoration efforts. Going forward, the partners will seek additional funding, including from local, state and federal sources.
Farmers in the Portage Bay Partnership Agreement, signed earlier this month, also agreed to work with the tribe to craft on-farm water-quality improvement plans, in exchange for the tribe agreeing not to sue. The plans eventually are intended to be enforceable in court.
But the work won’t stop there.
The goal is also to join together to advocate for clean water in the Nooksack River Basin to a wider community, including across the border in Canada, where exploding growth is suspected to be contributing to pollution. The goal is to bring more signatories to the agreement to address all sources of contamination.
At stake is a way of life for harvesters of the land and sea, and a future for their kids on the local farms and tide flats that have long sustained them.
“We are trying to have the same things Lummi want,” said dairy farmer and cheese maker Rich Appel, of Ferndale, Whatcom County, who helped negotiate the agreement. “They want a future for their kids and so do we.”
Treasure in the sand
For Lonnie “Lumpy” James, (so nicknamed because he was accident-prone as a kid) cleaning up Portage Bay means more nights like this doing what he loves: “clam jamming” as they call it on the reservation, where he is a top digger.
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The tradition of clamming during the winter nighttime low tides on Lummi Bay has been under way as long as Indian people have lived along these abundant clam and shellfish beds of the Lummi reservation, outside Bellingham. Diggers by the dozens turned out in the frigid dark on a recent winter night, with the sounds of the tide and howling coyotes in the distance, to dig for Manila clams.
It’s hard-core stoop labor for the truly committed: Diggers bend at the waist, wielding sawed-off garden rakes. They turned up the cold, wet sand, then probed with bare hands for their quarry. Flecks of mica in the sand glittered in the light of their headlamps, and the salt scent of the bay rolled over the flats as the tide slunk lower.
Each digger worked in a small circle of light from a headlamp, and the percussive report of clams tossed into buckets rattled the night quiet.
With a fast, relentless style, James said he always wants to come back with at least 100 pounds of clams for a night’s work. He looks forward to harvesting again at Portage Bay, where the access is much easier. Utilizing portions of Lummi Bay requires wading two channel crossings that can be waist deep, and hiking for miles over wet sand in waders and heavy winter clothes.
James likes to dig close by his cousin Caleb James, just as they have since they were kids. “We’ve been doing this all our lives,” Caleb said. “Not many people get to do this. It’s an unbreakable bind. I can’t explain it, I just know I can’t stop doing it. My dad raised me to do this, and I got really good at it right away.”
For many diggers, like Alex Jefferson, 69, at this time of year clam digging is his only cash income. As a digger for more than 30 years, the loss of the Portage Bay fishery took money out of his pocket. A harvester bringing in 100 pounds can earn $150 to $180 on a night’s dig, depending on the market price.
“It’s our job to make sure future generations can come here and harvest,” said Timothy Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, who helped lead the negotiations with the dairy farmers.
“It’s a new day,” said Ballew. “We will do better together.”
A partnership is formed
Rich Appel has worked hard to update and innovate his second-generation dairy farm, putting cow comfort first.
His Jersey cows are spotless and even the sand bedding is cleaned and recycled once a week. He’s proud to grow most of the forage fed to the cows right on his 500-acre place, and recycle the cows’ manure back to the land as fertilizer.
He uses lagoons to store the manure in winter, and tests the wells on his place regularly to ensure the water used to make cheese also on the farm is pure. Of course there are bad actors among the dairy farmers out there too, Appel acknowledged.
But he’s got nothing to hide on this farm, Appel said, and he wants this agreement to succeed in part for the relationships it will build with the tribe.
Though they share the same watershed, some of the farmers in this new partnership had never before even met their Indian neighbors.
But then one of the dairy farmers brought an ice-cream cake from his retail store for the birthday party of one of the tribal negotiator’s kids. Tribal members provided smoked-salmon snacks for the dairy farmers.
Mitch Moorlag of Edaleen Dairy in Lynden, one of the largest in Whatcom County and one of the first to sign the agreement, said he was pleased to find himself texting with Ballew about a recent Huskies game.
Moorlag has cows chipped with electronics that download how often each cow chews or takes a step, but he didn’t know until now much he had in common with the tribe one exit down the freeway.
Moorlag makes ice cream and sells milk from his farm to 7-Elevens up and down the West Coast. With more than 1,600 cows, his is a big operation. He is a stickler for details, installing mechanical back scratchers for cow comfort, and a scraper to automatically slick off the manure from barns that he processes in a solid waste digester, using the methane gas to generate power he sells back to the grid.
The solids, purified through the processing, are even recycled as bedding for the cows and as bacteria-free fertilizer for the fields.
With four children, he’s in this business for the long haul and wants a secure future in this watershed the tribe and farmers each call home.
“How many years has it been since agriculture and the tribe can sit across from one another, and talk about common goals?” Moorlag said.
“That can only be good.”