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.

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Past Columns
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

Bungle in the Jungle?

May 23, 2018

Heating Up

May 16, 2018

Home Run

May 9, 2018

State of the County

May 2, 2018

Symptoms of Pain

April 25, 2018

A Last Ditch Effort

April 18, 2018

Much ADUs About Nothing

April 11, 2018

The Sin of Sinclair

April 4, 2018

All Thumbs on the Scale

March 28, 2018

The Boundaries Between Us

March 21, 2018

Dirty Deeds

March 7, 2018

Sunshine Storm

February 28, 2018

Events
Today
Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:30pm|Vanier Park

Open Air Summer Rep

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Shades of the Northwest Quilt Show

10:00am|Cascade Middle School

Shrek the Musical

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Skagit Valley Highland Games

9:00am|Edgewater Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

State Street History Tour

1:30pm|Depot Market Square

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Sedro-Woolley Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Skagit Casino Resort Car Show

9:00am|Skagit Casino Resort

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Edison Farmers Market

10:00am|Edison Granary

Langar in Lynden

11:00am|Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Ferry Boat Contra Dance

12:30pm|Anacortes Ferry Terminal

Skagit City School Picnic

1:00pm|Skagit City School

MBT Community Pre-Sale Party

2:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Fiddlin' Fox Summer Concerts

2:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Trivia Time

3:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Trivia Time

3:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Vaudevillingham

7:00pm|Cirque Lab

Festival of Music Concert

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

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Tomorrow
Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:30pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Missoula Children's Theatre

10:00am|Mount Baker Theatre

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Kids Can Cook

11:00am|Community Food Co-op

Lit Camp

1:00pm|Village Books

Lit Camp

1:00pm|Village Books

Plant Diagnostic Clinics

5:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Cuban Salsa

6:00pm|Bell Tower Studios

Ferndale Cookbook Club

6:30pm|Ferndale Library

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

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Tuesday
Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:30pm|Vanier Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Tuesday Evening Free Paddles

4:30pm|Community Boating Center

Free Paddles

4:30pm|Community Boating Center

Trove Bingo

5:00pm|Trove Coffee

Kayak Camping Basics

6:00pm|REI

Artist Demo

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

BIFT

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Sunset History Cruise

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Luscious Lemons

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books on Tap

7:00pm|Josh VanderYacht Memorial Park

Comedy Open Mic

7:30pm|Shakedown

see our complete calendar »

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