The Gristle

A Tight and Knotty Problem of Equity
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A TIGHT AND KNOTTY PROBLEM OF EQUITY: Got stinky water? That’s the smell of a musty bloom of brown algae fouling Lake Whatcom’s water filtration plant mingled with chemical solutions intended to treat it, Bellingham Public Works reported in June. Though nontoxic, the algae is perhaps the most noxious sign of the continued decay of that water body.

“This algae issue highlights the need to continue to reduce nutrients in Lake Whatcom,” staff reported. “Aggressive watershed protection measures are being undertaken by the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District (LWWSD). Public infiltration and treatment systems, retrofitting residential properties, public education, and stringent development regulations are all part of our community’s commitment to a consistent source of clean, affordable water.”

The Lake Whatcom Policy Group—appointed representatives from each of these jurisdictions, plus the Sudden Valley homeowners association—met this week to continue discussions about how to equitably pay for those improvements to a public water system that supplies half the county’s population.

In 2013, the state Dept. of Ecology set these jurisdictions to the task of vigorously reducing the total daily maximum load (TMDL) of nutrients by restoring the lake to the more natural forested conditions that existed prior to nearly five decades of increased urbanization around this public water source. Ecology’s assignment has two important backstops: First, the TMDL target must be reached within 50 years—about the same amount of time it’s taken us to dig this hole—with periodic reports on that progress. Second, the costs for achieving this goal must be sustainable and (therefore) borne locally, not dependent on outside revenues. The latter may indeed arrive to assist, and perhaps even help accelerate the task of restoring Lake Whatcom, but cannot be counted on as part of the integral plan, which must stand on its own merits, the policy group learned from Assistant Public Works Director Jon Hutchings, manager of the city’s natural resource efforts.

Rough estimate of the cost to restore Lake Whatcom is $100 million, Hutchings noted. A 50-year task window means these jurisdictions must raise an additional $2 million per year supplement from dependable, sustainable local resources.

Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham are already spending about $1.5 million per year on water quality projects around Lake Whatcom, with ratepayers currently bearing the larger share, providing about $800,000 through the city’s stormwater utility and watershed acquisition funds. Those ratepayers include customers in outlying urban growth areas who receive water from Bellingham, such as the LWWSD customer base. The county currently contributes about $650,000 in revenues through its Flood Control Zone District taxing authority and through real estate excise tax (REET) revenues generated by property transactions in the unincorporated county.

Without even tackling Ecology’s TMDL requirement, Bellingham residents are already paying an additional $20 per month in 2014 for water quality projects in the reservoir. The county administration recognizes it must step up to match the contribution of Bellingham, but meanwhile faces an enormous number of competitive water issues in other parts of the county. Meanwhile, there are a number of homeowners who live in the watershed who fall through the cracks in the collection of revenues, paying neither city utility or county tax for the restoration of Lake Whatcom.

An equitable funding program is “a tight and knotty problem that doesn’t lend itself to short-term solutions like this year’s budget cycle,” Hutchins warned.

Overlaid on the problem of who should pay what for the restoration of Lake Whatcom is the problem of the intensity and duration of the burden. The math is inflexible, and accelerating restoration efforts commensurately increases the annual cost—a $100 million project completed in half the time is twice as costly in annual outlay. Most policy group officials believe the public demands a more brisk pace than the 50-year backstop provided by Ecology.

“We’re putting a problem this generation created and should be fixing on to our children, and that is unfair,” LWWSD Board Commissioner Todd Citron noted.

While we may swallow hard at a bill of $100 million, it is a sum not particularly outside the scope of public projects for municipal budgets the size of Bellingham and Whatcom County, Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist noted. Last week, the city cut the ribbon on an expansion of the Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, a capital facilities project financed over 20 years at nearly that cost. The county plans a new jail that easily surpasses that price tag.

Sympathetic to the aim of getting things done, Whatcom County Council Chair Carl Weimer asked what pressing human health and safety, ecological or other concerns might justify accelerating the restoration of Lake Whatcom. The county’s matching financial contribution could be delayed by a number of years as county revenues are stretched and applied to other natural resource concerns; and, moreover, dedicated funding is always subject to being clawed back by successive and stingier councils.

Weimer already had a partial answer to his question, having wisely informally polled public opinion on Lake Whatcom earlier this spring. His poll indicated towering support for the county to “step up and address these issues more aggressively, even if that means having to raise taxes and fees a small amount,” a position that generated more support than all the other possible poll responses combined.

So we might say that one pressing concern that might justify an accelerated timetable is that the public will to take strong action is here, to a degree we may not see in future years. Indeed, if efforts are successful and lake problems perceptibly recede, public engagement to press forward may also decline. Sad to say, but stink is what gets the public to think.

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