Wednesday, February 26, 2020
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS: Bellingham City Council’s natural resources committee this week discussed the update of the next five-year management work plan for Lake Whatcom in preparation for the adoption of the plan in coming weeks. The update is the fifth in a series of projects, programs and activities intended to protect and restore the lake that are proposed by the Lake Whatcom management group, the joint team of the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District. The plan is projected to be adopted March 25.
As city staff note, one of the plan’s primary goals is to protect, preserve and enhance water quality and manage water quantity to ensure long-term supplies for a variety of uses, with priority placed on domestic water supply.
The work plan is divided into ten program areas that attempt to address some aspect of concern to this water resource and drinking water supply for nearly half the county’s population. The lake has been in a steady (although perhaps slowing) state of decline for many years, primarily as a result of increased urbanization around the hills and shores of Lake Whatcom. About 16,000 people live in the Lake Whatcom watershed.
The 2020-2024 update focuses attention on engineering solutions for stormwater runoff, a projected expenditure of nearly $17 million over the next five years. A continuing program to acquire and preserve public land adds another $20 million to the price tag. Added together, capital improvements and land-use programs consume about half of the overall $62 million budget projected for the plan update.
Stormwater projects are intended to reduce the amounts of pollutants including phosphorous that enter the lake and contribute to its decay. The total daily maximum load (TMDL) of phosphorous that can enter the lake is established by a model from the state Dept. of Ecology, with target goals the joint management team must meet over the next 50 years. The TMDL model itself continues to be refined and revised with new data, staff noted.
In part to pay for these capital projects, Whatcom County created a stormwater district for the county portion of the watershed in 2017. The fee structure was adopted in July 2019, with utility payments for property owners imposed at the start of this year. A capital facilities fee will also be assessed on new development starting in 2021 to help pay for new stormwater control projects required because of this new development. The district is expected to bring in about $800,000 per year when the fee is fully phased in.
“It’s one of the significant additions to funding for Lake Whatcom that has occurred recently,” Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist commented.
“There is a new metric added to the land preservation program,” Lilliquist added, “which doesn’t just consider the acreage we’re saving, but also characterizes the maturity and quality of the forested lands that are being preserved.”
Lilliquist also cautioned that while $17 million is being spent on projects directed to actual restoration, “there is lots of money being spent on the lake that doesn’t restore the lake but is helpful to the lake” that are also factored into the overall plan budget, he said. Examples of these are trail improvements to reduce erosion in recreation areas, Lilliquist explained.
“I recall in the past we spent so much of our money on land preservation, which prevents harm but doesn’t actually reduce it,” Lilliquist observed. “Now we’re spending nearly half of our outlay on stormwater practices, which would reduce the amount of phosphorous going into the lake. Historically, I think this was imbalanced, but I am seeing a continuation of trends in the right direction, where we’re spending money truly on restoration.”
Through the years, Lilliquist has been as ardent a champion as we’ve had on the subject of Lake Whatcom. But his remarks serve as a glaring reminder that the management plan is as much about managing public expectations as it is about managing a faded water supply—let alone the herculean task of actually restoring it. Indeed, many of the work plan items concern tossing money at harmful things so they can continue on in parallel to helpful actions in the watershed.
A case-in-microcosm is the city’s aquatic invasive species (AIS) prevention program, budgeted at about $3 million in the current planning horizon, that primarily involves a boat inspection program so visitors can continue to blast their gas engines around our drinking water supply. This price tag—mostly paid by local taxpayers and utility users—substitutes as placeholder for the political courage it would take to actually close the lake to visiting gas-powered water craft.
Governor Jay Inslee proclaimed Feb. 24-28 as Invasive Species Awareness Week in Washington to help highlight the problem of invasive species—destructive plants and animals—that pose a $137 billion annual cost in damages to crops, forests, fish and other wildlife nationally. Lake Whatcom poses a uniquely preventable problem that might be resolved if the city and county stopped shoveling $500,000 annually at the problem in order to keep it.
“Most of the activities that lead to more pollution continue mostly unabated in the watershed,” Laura Weiss, president of People for Lake Whatcom, commented in December. “For example, there are about 16,000 people living in the Lake Whatcom watershed, in more than 7,000 homes. An estimated 1,563 more homes could be built in the watershed, which would account for another 3,643 acres that could be developed.
“More bold action is needed to protect our drinking water and save taxpayers from the expense of future cleanup and treatment.”