By Tim Johnson
What: Lake Whatcom Work Plan Review
When: 7 pm Mon., Feb. 24
Where: Bellingham City Council, City Hall, City Hall 210 Lottie St.
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
A problem 50 years in the making may well take 50 years to solve.
Lake Whatcom management partners last week released their draft near-term work plan for this drinking water reservoir for 100,000 county residents. This five-year plan is the fifth update produced by the Lake Whatcom Management Program (LWMP) partners—a joint coalition of Whatcom County, City of Bellingham, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, and community stakeholders and advistory groups. The plan proposes a comprehensive set of actions to reduce the amount of phosphorus and other pollutants reaching the lake, and to address additional watershed issues over the next five years.
The plan is divided into multiple program areas such as land use and stormwater management, each with specific objectives for the planning horizon. Most critical of these is the reduction of phosphorous, an agent carried into the lake by stormwater that creates unhealthy conditions that depletes oxygen in the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.
“Nutrients in polluted runoff lead to algae growth that can clog intake structures and interfere with water treatment processes,” the management team explain in their materials. “When such impacts occur, providing an adequate supply of drinking water requires the use of additional treatment strategies for both public and private systems. This increases costs and decreases efficiency of water supply systems.”
The plan represents the program managers’ response to federal Clean Water Act requirements and the state’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) targets. The TMDL sets a schedule for phosphorus reduction and a timeline for achieving the target.
“In response to this process, phosphorus has become a major guiding issue for the five-year work plans over the past decade,” project managers admit in their work plan report.
Never a rigorously managed resource, lake problems really began in earnest in the 1970s with increased urbanization and year-round residence around this drinking water resource. By the 1980s and 1990s, the decay of the reservoir was being documented and brought to the attention of local governments and the public.
A joint resolution was passed by the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District in 1992 to organize efforts to address the most serious threats to the watershed. This comprehensive approach to managing the lake became the basis of the LWMP, which was established by Interlocal Agreement in 1998.
As the City of Bellingham notes in its materials, “In recent decades, the water quality in Lake Whatcom has been deteriorating due to increased phosphorus inputs that are resulting in algal blooms and depleted oxygen levels. In 1998, Lake Whatcom was placed on Washington’s list of polluted waters because it no longer met the state’s dissolved oxygen level requirements.… In the meantime, Lake Whatcom is also vulnerable to many additional threats.”
The issue is an important one for the City of Bellingham. A community survey released in February of last year found a powerful majority of residents—81 percent—think it is extremely or very important for the city to prevent further development in the Lake Whatcom watershed and to restore the quality of this resource.
Most cities realized this lesson long ago and have fully protected their sources of drinking water. Everett and Seattle have their water sources completely forested in their foothills. In Portland, the watershed serving the city’s drinking water reservoir is off limits even to hikers.
For Bellingham and Whatcom County, it is an expensive lesson, with the cost of restoring the lake to levels established by the TMDL estimated at $100 million. The state Department of Ecology set a timetable for the completion of this work at 50 years, which means the county and city must invest approximately $2 million each year to meet those TMDL targets.
According to the draft work plan, residential stormwater investments alone are estimated at $16.9 million over the five-year planning horizon. These investments. coupled with land acquisition strategies, represent the lion’s share of costs for the plan. Land preservation and acquisition costs (essentially clawing back resources given to private landowners) are estimated at $19.5 million over the plan’s five years.
The work plan update is an opportunity to learn more about the history of lake preservation efforts and to help shape future efforts.
The final work plan will be presented for approval at the annual Lake Whatcom Management Program Joint Councils and Commission meeting on Weds., March 25. Public comments on the draft work plan are welcome and can be submitted in writing by Mon., March 2 to the three decision-making bodies. For more information, http://www.lakewhatcom.whatcom county.org