The Gristle

Stilly Waters Run Slow
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STILLY WATERS RUN SLOW: A poorly engineered clear-cut appears to have been a catalyst in the slope failure and landslide along the upper Stillaguamish River that left dozens dead and missing in Snohomish County last month. The tragedy is a stern reminder of the wisdom of the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, which keeps roots fixed in soil and a forested canopy covering steep and unstable slopes in the watershed. We can talk about parks and recreation, we can talk about the benefits of water filtration to the reservoir, but the genesis of that effort was always about landslides and the risk of landslides.

As we’ve noted before, the Reconveyance is the single best, most proactive public-policy decision in the long, sorry history of the urbanization of an unprotected water resource for half the county’s population. The Reconveyance was a tremendous achievement—alone in a vast, pitiless desert of passive-aggresssive inaction, brutal stupidity and avoidable decay of that water supply.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than the meeting of the Joint Council of the Lake Whatcom Cooperative Management Team, attended by members of Bellingham City Council, Whatcom County Council and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District (LWWSD) board of commissioners, who self-congratulated one another last week on years of inactivity, lethargy and unfocused folly. This joint council was essentially shamed into meeting by the excoriations of Whatcom County Council Chair Carl Weimer and former Bellingham City Council member Stan Snapp, who in 2013 urged an enhanced role for the Lake Whatcom Policy Group to develop an actual work plan to jumpstart a coordinated response to the Dept. of Ecology’s report that the total maximum daily load (TMDL) of pollutants entering the lake would have to be rolled back by more than 87 percent in order to reverse the decay of Lake Whatcom. Ecology updated its report in February with an even gloomier assessment that found fecal coliform bacteria levels in streams feeding this drinking water supply must be reduced by as much as 96 percent in contaminated areas.

Following this urgent call by Weimer and Snapp, fully half of the Joint Policy Group meetings in 2013 were summarily canceled.

Apart from the Reconveyance that spared nearly 9,000 forested acres from the impacts of logging, the annual meeting of the joint councils reported on a thin gruel of achievements in 2013: Whatcom County, with a gun to its head, finally adopted a stormwater plan that had been gathering dust for a decade. The city stumbled to launch a completely voluntary program to retrofit two-score lakefront properties that never should have been built out in the first place. And they managed to con several dozen people into sitting through additional boring and depressing educational lectures on the (completely preventable) decay of their drinking water supply. Yes, and they scraped a few quarts of horrible freshwater clams from the hulls of powerboats gunning gasoline into that drinking water supply, and hailed the costly program as a victory. Recommendations for 2014 are summed as inching forward these dismal successes, a bailing of the Titanic euphemized as “management.”

Let’s take a step back and admit—honestly—that the percentages of rollback to natural conditions proposed by the Dept. of Ecology have never been achieved anywhere in human history this side of Chernobyl, and that the gossamer is likely a fiction of profoundly wishful thinking. “Management” produces a long career and sizable paychecks for certain civil service employees.

The county’s own recently adopted stormwater plan shrugs at this, admitting, “The data and information gathered has yet to pinpoint the sources of most phosphorus and erosion and have not fully characterized the path of Lake Whatcom stormwater and its pollutants through the watershed. This plan uses the best available information and professional judgment to recommend strategies for near-term Lake Whatcom stormwater management and should be used as a tool while more information is collected.”

Yet data has been collected for decades, phosphorous is a chemical that can be measured, and a map in the plan pinpoints the problem areas for the lake: Where it can be reduced, phosphorous runs off developed residential properties owned and sold by a cohort the county and city has never in five decades been able to say “no” to, or to enjoin into appropriate action for the protection of a municipal water supply. So deferential is the county to this cohort that their plan can not even admit what the county knows about the sources and paths of lake pollutants. We must pretend that we don’t know. All of which sets the table for a banquet of beetles at that future moment when the county must approach, cap in hands, this very group it cannot even level with in order to play patticake with Ecology’s TMDL mandates.

The county’s recommended funding mechanism for stormwater, the creation of a special taxing district, is not directly addressed anywhere in the Joint Council’s five-year plan, despite the recognition it must be this very joint council that will craft and define that district. None dare speak its name. The political cowardice is staggering.

For the city it is also a maneuver of avoidance, with plans to spread the pain everywhere, through utility increases in neighborhoods that have utterly no connection to the watershed, in order to finance costly engineered solutions—we’ll mop our way out of the toilet!

Indications from the Stillaguamish suggest officials understood the risks and did little. How tragic that only disaster on a scale that claims human lives can galvanize governments into taking the actions they so studiously avoid.


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