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.