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.

Bob1
Past Columns
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

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

Events
Today
Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Northwest Washington Fair

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

8:00am

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Bow Farmers Market

1:00pm|Samish Bay Cheese

Blues and Brews

5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Food Preservation Workshop

5:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

Fairhaven Wine Walk

5:30pm|Historic Fairhaven

Ales & Sails

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Bellingham Go Club

6:00pm|Community Food Co-op

Riverwalk Concert Series

6:00pm|Riverwalk Plaza.

Elizabeth Park Summer Concert Series

6:00pm|Elizabeth Park

Pub Run

6:00pm|BBay Running

Choice

7:00pm|Village Books

Summer of Blood Finales

7:00pm|Rexville Grange Amphitheater

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Hound of the Baskervilles

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Bob2
Tomorrow
Northwest Washington Fair

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

8:00am

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Summer of Blood Finales

7:00pm|Rexville Grange Amphitheater

Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Hound of the Baskervilles

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Summer's End Music & Art Gathering

12:00pm|Zuanich Point Park

Drive for the Arts

1:00pm|Swinomish Golf Links

Books and Bites

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Roadeo

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Wheelchair Gangball

5:00pm|Bloedel Donovan

Beachside Barbecue

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Beachside Barbecue

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Beachside Barbecue

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Anacortes Summer Concert Series

6:00pm|Seafarers' Memorial Park

Farm Tunes

6:00pm|BelleWood Acres

Salmon Dinner Sail

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Commercial Street Night Market

6:00pm|Commercial Street

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Whiskey Fever

7:00pm|Eagle Haven Winery

Hot August Nights

7:00pm|Majestic

Hotbox

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Push it to the Limit

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

2018 Cascadia Kids Trove Web
Saturday
Northwest Washington Fair

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

8:00am

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Summer of Blood Finales

7:00pm|Rexville Grange Amphitheater

Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Hound of the Baskervilles

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Hotbox

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Push it to the Limit

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Wild Edibles and Medicinal Plants of Summer

8:30am|Heather Meadows

Twin Sisters Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner, North Fork Library

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverwalk Park

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am| Depot Market Square

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|H Street Plaza

Lynden Farmers Market

10:00am|Centennial Park

Lummi Island Saturday Market

10:00am|Islander Grocery Store

Correspondence Club

10:30am|Mindport Exhibits

Garden Party

11:00am|www.skagitfoodcoop.com

Job Fair and BBQ

11:00am|Taylor Driving Schools

Dwindling orcas and expanding pipelines

1:00pm

Mosaic Stepping Stone Workshop

1:00pm|Chuckanut Center

Lynden Cemetery Tour

1:00pm|Lynden Cemetery

Concrete Saturday Market

1:00pm|Concrete Community Center

Skagit Woodstock

2:00pm|Edgewater Park

Storytelling with Felted Puppets

2:00pm|Lummi Island Library

Nooksack River Walk

3:00pm|Horseshoe Bend Trailhead

Seafood Boil

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Saturday Seafood Boil

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Seafood Boil

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Arete Quartet

6:00pm|Boulevard Park

The Naughty Blokes

6:00pm|Heart of Anacortes

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Point Roberts Joke Contest

7:00pm|Point Roberts Community Center

see our complete calendar »

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