The Gristle

Utility

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

UTILITY: With two known and reliable voices set to go silent as those members’ terms expire at the end of this month, Whatcom County Council laid out an ambitious schedule this week as their legislative year comes to an end. Among these actions was discussion and (long overdue) action to create a stormwater utility service area within the Lake Whatcom watershed as an instrument to protect and restore a drinking water reservoir for nearly half the county’s population.

In September, Council requested that staff prepare an ordinance to define such a special purpose district drawn largely along the hydrological contours of the drainage for Lake Whatcom.

The district creates a mechanism by which homeowners in the watershed may pony up a little extra for the impacts they cause to the reservoir while also creating a funding tool to help assist homeowner improvements and retrofits for items like landscaping and septic systems. The fees and charges of such a utility will be established at a later time, but likely they will mirror those of lakefront neighborhoods like Silver Beach that are within the City of Bellingham utility service area.

Utilities under Washington law must be largely revenue neutral—in other words, fees and charges paid in must be balanced against services paid out to utility customers—an excellent means of targeting stormwater improvements around Lake Whatcom to those who contribute to the impacts and who similarly benefit from the improvements.

It’s an idea that’s been discussed for some time, but became an imperative in 2017 as Whatcom County drew down its flood and water resource fund balance on capital projects required by the county’s Water Action Plan.

The Water Action Plan was initiated by County Council in 2014 to meet the requirements set by the state Dept. of Ecology to reduce the total maximum daily load (TMDL) of pollutants entering the lake. Ecology established a 50-year horizon to meet the TMDL target threshold, and estimated its cost at $100 million.

At $2 million per year, that projected cost easily exhausts the flood and water resource fund paid through real estate excise tax (REET), state grant funding and the county’s flood fund. Bellingham is by far the largest contributor to that flood tax—a county-wide property tax—at $1.2 million in 2016. Additionally, the city manages its own stormwater management program for the lake.

Missing from the equation all these years has been some instrument that targets the other thousands of residents around Lake Whatcom who do not live inside Bellingham city limits and involves them in the solutions for the lake. The utility service area allows the county as a partner agency to keep pace with Ecology’s requirements for the lake.

As staff reported in their presentation, “The City of Bellingham has established a stormwater utility to provide a funding source to address the phosphorus reduction funding needs within the incorporated portion of the Lake Whatcom watershed; and a funding source is needed to address the phosphorus reduction funding needs in the unincorporated portion of the Lake Whatcom watershed.”

At the Lake Whatcom Policy Group meeting last summer, county staff outlined four potential tiers of funding, four levels of service, to address the forecasted exhaustion of the fund reserve. One level—no action on the current fund balance—would obviously not meet the TMDL rollback time frame agreed to with Ecology. Others would require funding increases of $1.3 million to $1.7 million above current revenues. The fourth level, the gold standard, would fully cover a forecasted funding gap of $2 million for county water projects, including the restoration of Lake Whatcom on Ecology’s 50-year target. The last would also allow the county to fully participate in the city’s homeowner improvement program (HIP) to assist stormwater retrofits of private properties around Lake Whatcom.

The peculiarities of the fall elections did not bring these issues into sharp focus. The race in District 2, the Bellingham district that borders on Lake Whatcom, in particular might have served as a forum to more broadly discuss the county’s financial response to Lake Whatcom. Alas, it did not.

What are the advantages (or drawbacks) to accelerating Ecology’s 50-year mandate for the lake, in effect spending more money in early years for possible benefit in out-years? What are the financial impacts—the requirements for the utility—to collect and spend more money sooner on stormwater retrofits for the lake?

Some on the Lake Whatcom Policy Group have argued that accelerating the plan by reducing the 50-year horizon, first, provides data on whether the plan is even achievable. There is considerable doubt whether the urbanized condition of the reservoir can be substantially reduced and the impacts of development and pervious surfaces can be rolled back by the targeted 87 percent. Second, an accelerated schedule would yield time for course corrections, for policy adjustments, as it became clear those targets would not be achieved. A great deal of the $100 million cost to restore Lake Whatcom arrives in the form of trying to engineer at enormous expense what natural conditions provide for free—putting it in crude terms, great effort and expense to replicate the function of weeds. Mightn’t it be better to discover sooner rather than later that the engineered solutions won’t work as well as weeds?

These questions are unlikely to arise as County Council seeks to model its utility fees modestly on those of Bellingham. And the familiar crowd of anti-tax tightwads will be shrilly haranguing Council to do less; while a tidal shift in county politics mutes the voices that encourage them to do more.

Past Columns
As Below, So Above

October 10, 2018

A Civil Disagreement

October 3, 2018

Zombie Pipeline

September 26, 2018

Too Little, Too Late

September 19, 2018

Open Secret Disclosed

September 12, 2018

Consent of the Governed

September 5, 2018

Let the People Decide

August 29, 2018

3-in-1 Oil

August 22, 2018

A Deeper Dive

August 15, 2018

Blue Wave Stalls Offshore

August 8, 2018

Mountains of Our Efforts

August 1, 2018

Vote

July 25, 2018

Trust Is Reciprocal

July 18, 2018

Pressure in the Bottle

July 11, 2018

Sharing the Pain

July 4, 2018

A Supreme Shifting

June 27, 2018

The Costs of Failure

June 6, 2018

Thumb on the Scales

May 30, 2018

Events
Today
Rainbow Reads

3:00pm|Ferndale Library

Cook It and Book It

3:30pm|Lynden Library

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

War Through the Eyes of Women Book Club

6:00pm|Bellingham Vet Center

Peru Novoandina

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Mind-Body-Food Connection

6:30pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

WAKE Meeting

6:30pm|Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Center

Beginning Square Dance Lessons

7:00pm|Ten Mile Grange

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books on Tap

7:00pm|North Fork Brewery

Fancy Bingo

7:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Comedy Open Mic

7:30pm|Shakedown

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Bellingham at Home Informational Meeting

1:00pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Endangered Species Curator's Tour

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Prosecutors race is a referendum on reform

6:00pm

Creekside Open Mic

6:30pm|South Whatcom Library

Where the sidewalk ends

7:00pm

Walking to the End of the World

7:00pm|Village Books

Brian Dean Trio

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Climate Change and Forests

7:00pm|Sustainable Living Center

Modified documentary and Panel Discussion

7:30pm|Pickford Film Center

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Thursday
Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Fall Craft & Antique Show

10:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Komo Kulshan Ski Swap

4:00pm|Bloedel Donovan

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

Camber Exhcange

5:30pm|1820 Scout Place

Falling Out of the Box Jewelry Challenge

6:00pm|Jansen Art Center

Squash Celebration

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Chuckanut Radio Hour

6:30pm|Whatcom Community College

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Nooksack River Travelogue

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Duck Variations

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

The Skriker

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Side Show

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

see our complete calendar »

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