The Gristle

Clam Calamity:
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CLAM CALAMITY: The peculiar dementia of Whatcom County Council in response to the protection of the county’s largest single supply of drinking water, both natural resource and economic asset, was on proud display last week. On the agenda was a program to help monitor and reduce the introduction of aggressive invasive species into the Lake Whatcom reservoir, and a modest fee schedule to help pay for the same.

In 2011, officials responsible for the health of Lake Whatcom confirmed the presence of invasive Asian clams, not just in that water body but in others around the county. The species is particularly horrific, essentially herma-phroditic and capable of self-spawning, able to release as many as 2,000 juveniles per day and more than 100,000 in a lifetime. Their numbers can foul beaches with a gagging sulfurous stench as well as clog municipal water intakes and filtration systems. The species is now present in 38 states and capable of reaching densities in the thousands per square meter, wreaking costly destruction on lakes around the country.

Whatcom was fortunate to discover the Asian clam problem early, but it is not the only invader making a home on the lake.

“This is the newest invasive species to be discovered in Lake Whatcom,” Laurel Baldwin, Whatcom County Noxious Weed Board Coordinator, reported when the Asian clams were discovered. “We currently have nine confirmed aquatic invasive plants in the lake, including Eurasian watermilfoil and purple loosestrife, some of which have already spread throughout the lake.”

Early investigation indicated that the clams were concentrated around public boat launches, suggesting invasive species could be being introduced by recreational craft visiting the open reservoir. Despite the early warning and a deep understanding of the damage these animals can do if they are not responded to in time, the City of Bellingham stalled a year in its response, partly out of concern that county policy-makers would not join a preventative program. The city instead spent last year collecting compelling data on the boats launched into Lake Whatcom.

What they learned is the bilges and mechanical parts of motorized boats are notable areas where these creatures might attach and travel.

Earlier this year, Bellingham City Council approved an inspection program for and established a permit program to help cover the costs of managing the program. The city established a $50 seasonal pass or a $20 day pass for the use of the city’s public boat launches.

Now the simplest, cheapest response would be to simply close the city’s public boat launches to motorized craft, at the cost of a section of chain link fence, an idea on the table for discussion since at least 2004, a decade ago. Whether the county responded in kind, the physical opportunities to launch a boat into Lake Whatcom would be significantly reduced.

On the spectrum of doing nothing (not really an option, given the mandates to protect and restore Lake Whatcom as well as the aggressive unchecked biology of these creatures) and total prohibition (given changes in the political and policy landscape since 2004, perhaps not as impossible as it once might’ve seemed), the city proposed an intermediate step.

“We wanted to introduce something the County Council could buy into, to join us as partners,” City Council member Cathy Lehman lamented. Lehman chairs the council’s Lake Whatcom Reservoir and Natural Resources committee. “We really wracked our brains to come up with a pilot program the County Council could support.”

They might have spared themselves that effort, honestly, as a plurality of County Council flipped out last week at the idea of establishing a comprehensive program or—horrors!—charging boat owners for a license to launch a gas-powered boat in a municipal reservoir. On the spectrum of doing nothing and doing something, several on council made their preferences clear, annoyed with the city for taking the lead on a potential solution, favoring a minimalist, self-policing honor system that has, frankly, produced the conditions observed to date.

“Are we trying to solve a problem, or are we just trying to make money?” Council member Barbara Brenner sniped, issuing multiple amendments to render the program toothless, finally voting against it in total.

“I think this is going to give both the county and the city a black eye. I think what we’re going to have is long lines, waits, and some frustrated folks this summer if they’re required to get these inspections,” Council member Bill Knutzen said, as if herding power boats by the score on to Lake Whatcom was the government’s highest and most pressing duty.

Council discussion quickly slid into a debate of whether the county should charge the same fee for the inspection service as established by the city.

County Executive Jack Louws at last had to step in as schoolmaster to show “the maths:” Differing fee schedules establish a competitive effort between the city and county, not a cooperative effort, as boaters race to the lowest cost and efficacy. Council member Sam Crawford—joining the majority in support of the program—noted a similar problem in not enforcing the inspection program on other county lakes like Lake Samish, “squeezing the balloon in one spot, merely causes problems in another as folks avoid paying a fee,” he observed.

While the County Council majority grudgingly supported the program in their final vote, their discussion underscored a persistent vision of the reservoir as the plaything of polluters, revealing their pattern to err on the side of a status quo that has produced continuous decline in water quality—in this case, at direct and understood cost to property owners and stakeholders around the lake. It’s a mindset the city must fight, not accommodate.


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