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Saving the Lake

By g.h.kirschOn May 20, 2008

Another important step towards dealing with the pollution of Lake Whatcom was taken tonight. The mayor and city council have thrown down the gauntlet to Pete Kremen and the county council. Bellingham has declared a moratorium on development in the watershed under its jurisdiction.

The chance of any meaningful action out of Kremen is nil. The county council is unlikely to acknowledge, in more than words, that development must stop until its implications are understood.

But congratulations are due from every water drinking citizen of Bellingham; and everyone who understands the challenge we face to protect the lake.

Like the decision to limit expansion of the urban growth areas, and the efforts underway to redirect the efforts of the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District, this administration, and this council are a refreshing change from the past.

About g.h.kirsch

Contributor • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

Craig Mayberry

May 20, 2008

So finally someone takes the simplest and most obvious answer to the problems in the lake, shut down development for a few months while we study the problem some more.  I realize this is a short-term moratorium and the city planning department is going to look at the entire situation, but when do we tackle the real issues?  I do lean towards not doing any more development in the watershed (ever), but this action does not address that issue.  It also does not address past sins on how the current development was done, which is really the biggest culprit.  It also does not address the issue of Lake Whatcom, buy and large, being a stagnant lake, which will always have more environmental issues than a lake that has some flow through it.  I would suggest we save our applause until something meaningful happens.

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Doug Karlberg

May 20, 2008

It will be interesting what the County does. If County government has any principles, they will join the City in this Moratorium.

The easiest and most difficult to avoid is the issue of raw human sewage being dumped into the lake.

No action is a vote to continue to allow dumping of raw sewage from failing septic systems.

One of the more interesting dilemmas is what happens when an innovative developer proposes a development which is cleaned up, and has significantly less impact on the lake than current residential developments.

Do we encourage property owners who do the responsible thing and clean up the run off from their property? Even if the clean developments are new ones?

Exactly what principles do we stand on?

~

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Ham Hayes

May 20, 2008

After years of inaction by our elected city officials, we now have a Mayor and a Council who appear willing to start tackling the problem.  Hooray!

They have a big challenge in devising a strategy and supporting municipal code that will remedy the existing problem sources, control future development and protect individual and community rights. This is especially challenging for residents in the watershed and they deserve our community’s support as well in becoming part of the solution.

Is this not also the last credible opportunity for the County Council and Executive to stand up and be counted? What possible excuse is left for not following the city’s lead?  Come on County, tomorrow is no longer available.

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Bob Aegerter

May 21, 2008

Can you please explain what this means?

A moratorium on issuing building permits?

A moratorium on subdivisions?

Both?

For how long?

Is there a work plan for development of the new standards and rules?

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Tom Pratum

May 21, 2008

Well, we saw that no further action was taken by the county council, which is a good thing given that the votes were not there and seeing what happened the last time (a run on building permits when a moratorium didn’t pass).

It is too bad that the county can’t find within itself to do more. In this morning’s paper, a SEPA DNS was issued for clearing associated with a 4 lot short plat on the Sheridan Trail (above Agate Bay). Development in the county portion of the watershed continues apace.

I don’t really want to argue too much with comments presented here, but one statement by Craig Mayberry above raises my hackles: what exactly is meant by “it also does not address the issue of Lake Whatcom, buy(sic) and large, being a stagnant lake, which will always have more environmental issues than a lake that has some flow through it.” ? This statement is entirely false - if there were no flow through Lake Whatcom then Whatcom Creek would not exist.

I think what is behind such statements is the mistaken belief that we should be running Middle Fork Nooksack water through Lake Whatcom to flush it out - however, THE SOLUTION TO POLLUTION IS NOT DILUTION! Lake Whatcom existed for 1000’s of years (at least since the last ice age) without diverting the Nooksack through it. The Nooksack diversion is an unnatural condition that was put in reduce lake level fluctuations caused by large water usage by GP; Nooksack River water is needed for more important things than cleaning up our messes.

Meeting the TMDL requirements will be a tall order. Let’s stop subdivisions and building permits until we figure out how we are going to do it.

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Carl Weimer

May 22, 2008

I am glad that the City passed a moratorium to protect the lake, and to show that Lake Whatcom is once again truly front and center in their focus. This action, like others recently, was clearly a signal that the City intends to move forward in protecting their drinking water source. Even if this action is mostly symbolic (since in reality it only protects a handful of parcels), it does send an important message that times have changed and the City will push forward whether others will follow or not.

My one concern is that the City will confuse this symbolic act with real action, and move no further. In the coming weeks I hope you all will keep an eye on both the City and the County and push for real progress. Both jurisdictions have much to do!

Many have asked if the County will institute a similar moratorium, and the answer to that is no we will not. Why you ask? The really short answer is “been there, done that.” The political answer is that a majority of Council members do not support the idea, but the reasoning behind that answer is more interesting and may be educational for casual lake watchers who may be more swayed by symbolism than substance. While the moratorium makes the well deserved headlines, the County has also been plodding away. In my opinion the County Council does not feel the need for a moratorium because unlike the City:

  1.  We already have a land division moratorium in place, and beyond that we can not legally permanently stop development on existing lots without somehow compensating owners for their development rights which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. After years of talk about putting a TDR program in place to help accomplish some fraction of this there has still been little cooperation between the cities and county to accomplish this.

  2.  Our development regulations for new construction (unlike the City’s) already meets one of the major goals of the draft TMDL by requiring on-site infiltration, treatment and detention of stormwater so that no runoff is allowed to leave the site.

  3.  Many of our other development regulations, such as land clearing, tree retention, impervious surface, setbacks, etc are already more stringent than the City’s.

  4.  We already have designated staff focused on Lake Whatcom.

  5.  We have already hired experts to peer review the draft TMDL modeling and conclusions, as best science would dictate, to help determine the County’s best response before we respond to the draft technical report or rely on it for policy decisions.

  6.  Our current energies are focused on the issue that has caused the current decline in water quality in the reservoir, namely runoff from existing development. To that end the County Council last night approved the beginning stages of implementation of a Stormwater Utility District for the lake and other urban areas outside of the city, and the increase in taxes and fees of between $5.66 to $7.35 million / year of additional funding for water related programs.

Does all that let the County off the hook on doing more to protect the lake? Absolutely not, but people need to realize that the County and City are different entities, with different politics and constituents, and in different situations regarding protection of the lake.

While the moratorium may have been what the City needed most at this time, I think the County needs to strengthen our enforcement and monitoring so our stricter regulations have the desired effect. The County needs to push forward the implementation of its new septic regulations which the Department of Ecology and EPA claim will ensure that all septic systems in the watershed are as protective of the Lake as sewer lines. And all jurisdictions need to examine the way sewer and water hookups, and exempt wells may be furthering unwanted development in the watershed.

Then there are the thorny issues of the DNR reconveyance and the City-County “unified management structure” where more analysis and constructive conversation need to happen to ensure we get well thought out decisions instead of politically expedient ones.

How can we get all this accomplished? How about a consultant lead consensus based planning effort that brings all the different stakeholder groups to a common table to develop a vision of what we want Lake Whatcom to look like for our great grandchildren?  If that sounds good to you please don’t call me - I suggest instead that you critics, lake lovers, troublemakers, political wantabes, and water drinkers all continue to keep a very close eye on all us public servants and alternate between patting us on the head and kicking us in the butt.

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Ham Hayes

May 22, 2008

Carl,

Thanks for joining the discussion and adding your insights.  You are certainly closer to the policy and technical aspects than folks like myself. 

Despite the commendable efforts you’ve mentioned, the water quality is apparently continuing to decline.  If that is true, what is being missed here?  Is the science inadequate? How about public policy or enforcement?  Or engineering and implementation?  Our is it beyond our ability or will to clean up the mess we’ve made?  Can we all accept that doom?

Six months after our last election, what has been done to bring city and county policy and action into coordination?  Where is the plan to reverse the degradation?  How many more years shall we wait?  How many more reports of decline? 

If Lake Whatcom’s water quality is actually getting better, I’ll be the first cheer and congratulate our community leaders. 

We all know finding the solution is not easy, but please let’s admit we are not there yet.  Let’s continue to find ways to work together and come up with new and improved approaches.

Last I recall, all of our elected officials are volunteers - none were drafted into their jobs.  All ran on a platform of bringing leadership to local governance.  Please be leaderful.  We are counting on you.

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John Watts

May 22, 2008

All these are good comments on a timely and critical subject.

Rather than itemize the many ‘actions’ taken to benefit the Reservoir, let me repeat that activity should not be confused with results!

While it does take activity to achieve the results that we want, to date the sum total of these has not even been enough to SLOW DOWN the rate of degradation!

Both City and County must take additional strong action, and if it is not possible under the TMDL’s issuance, when will this be possible?

To Carl Weimer’s credit, he has been dealt a poor hand, but has played it about as well as possible to this point.

Maybe he can ask for another deck, with a picture of lake Whatcom on the back?
Too often County discussions get mired into a daunting bundle of ‘other’ priorities that have also not been addressed very well for a very long time!

Asking the public to ‘vote’ on something the County ought to have done with funds it has seems laughable if it weren’t so sad!
That is a disingenuous game that Pete likes to play whenever he wants something to just go away.

Produce a new deck of RESERVOIR cards and deal that hand! Then let’s see what progress can be made, not what can’t.

There’s more written stuff on my blog as of 6PM today.

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Tom Pratum

May 23, 2008

Carl-

Thank you for the clarifications here and the wonderful suggestions. There are a couple of things in your post that surprised me, so I wanted to mention:

- The county has only stopped land divisions of less than 5 acres. Folks are subdividing land into 5 acre parcels as we speak in the watershed. This is not helping matters at all and should be stopped.

- I am not aware that the county requires on-site infiltration of stormwater so that none is allowed to leave the site. On-site detention, etc is required, but I think stormwater is allowed to leave the site (I just checked the WCC and I don’t see where this has been changed recently). It also appears that stormwater regs only apply to lots of 5 acres or less.

Thanks again Carl.

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g.h. kirsch

May 23, 2008

Inaction continues to rule in Kremen County.  Notwithstanding the fine words, and the failure of the county to control accelerating pollution of Lake Whatcom,  forceful measures won’t be taken.

Council chair Weimer has my sympathy.  But inspite of his hope that continuation of the failed policies and practices of the past might lead to a different outcome in the future, the reality is that the majority of the council and the county executive are ignoring the continuing degradation of the lake because it’s politically expedient.

John Watts aptly notes, ?to date the sum total of these [county actions] has not even been enough to slow Down the rate of degradation!?

Past development in the watershed has polluted the lake.  Half measures and half hearted enforcement don’t work.  It is only reasonable to demand that development stop until the county can demonstrate that their measures, if ever enforced, have in fact arrested the decline in the lake’s quality.

We have witnessed some dozen years of twittering lip service, and mellifluous assurances from Pete Kremen that lake protection is job one.  Bullshit!

His administration has ignored the problem and refused to consider using ample means provided, no mandated, to protect the lake.  And beyond the laws they ignore enforcing, there are still more they are simply ignorant of because they frankly don’t care to know there are available laws they could enforce.

Chief amongst the county’s neglects is the refusal to enforce its own Comprehensive Plan’s prohibition of urban services that are driving development in the watershed, in particular provision of water that is taken from a basin that is closed to new withdrawals.  Instead, we attempt to replenish the lake with water diverted from the Nooksack that is needed for salmon habitat and irrigation for farms.

The time has come for drastic action.  The mayor, with clear support from the city council and the community, has stepped up.  The county executive never will.

The time has come for Bellingham to assume authority for enforcement of the law in the watershed or take the necessary actions to assure that the county must.

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John Watts

May 23, 2008

Here’s a correction to my earlier comment, from Whatcom County Planning & Development, forwarded by Carl Weimer from Rebecca Craven, Policy Analyst for the County Council:

“One of the projects I’ve been working on with PDS staff is a thorough parcel analysis of potentially developable and partially developed lots in the portion of the watershed under the County’s jurisdiction.  We recently reported our preliminary results to the Council’s Natural Resources Committee. PDS staff has coordinated its efforts with COB staff, and while their numbers are still slightly different from each other (for reasons I’m happy to explain if you want that much detail), neither staff estimate is close to the 3208 you reference in your blog entry.  The estimates are ~2200 potential units, which at a population density of 2.1 persons per household as used in the COB land supply analysis, works out to a potential population increase of about 4620.”

I appreciate receiving this new information so promptly, as well as being more regularly kept informed.
Just imagine, in the blink of an eye, over 1000 potential new homes disappear along with 10,000 potential new residents in the watershed!

See how easy it is to reduce density with paper and pencil?
It’s also more ecologically & cost effective for legislative bodies and administrations to rely more on such preventative ‘non-structural’ methods, rather than after-the-fact attempts at mitigation, AFTER a problem has occurred!

That is the policy that was adopted years ago, but as we’ve seen its easier to say than to do.

Thanks, Rebecca & Carl

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Carl Weimer

May 23, 2008

Hi Tom,

I just wanted to respond to your points about some possible inaccuracies in my long-winded-middle-of-the-night post.

First, you are totally correct about the County’s moratorium only applying to the division of land into lots smaller than 5 acres. If someone has 40 acres and wants to divide it up into 8 lots that is still allowed. The decision to limit the moratorium at 5 acres was made before I was on the Council. I have brought this ?loophole? up with the Council a number of times, and to date there is not sufficient interest (4 votes) to change it. I believe the thinking that lead to the 5 acre limit was the belief that a lot of 5 acres or larger is plenty big enough to adequately hold, treat, and infiltrate it?s own runoff so would not have a stormwater impact to the Lake. There may be some legitimate thinking to that idea, although only if the stormwater rules are adequate to ensure that, are enforced, and you ignore other associated impacts to the Lake such as increased traffic, etc.

As far as the whether the County?s rules require complete on-site infiltration is a little harder to answer. As you point out there is no language to that effect in the code, but the Stormwater Special District standards that are referenced in the code to me seem to require infiltration. For those of you who want to form your own opinion you can find those standards at:
http://www.whatcomcounty.us/publicworks/engineering/documents/specdist.pdf

I think this is a great discussion and hope it continues. I hope people will read my original post carefully and realize that I was giving my view of why the ?Council? believes a moratorium is not necessary. I support many of those beliefs, but certainly not all of them.

I agree with all of you that point out it is time for real measurable action that leads to measurable improvement. I thought that was what I have been trying to accomplish by getting the County to move forward with a real Stormwater District for around the Lake, and the money to fund to adequately. Please let me know if you don?t think those things are important.

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Doug Karlberg

May 23, 2008

It appears to me as if this lake problem would be better addressed by trading our pens in for shovels, at least in some small way.

Debating 280 projects just bogs down the process. Pick the best five and get them done, and this would reduce the debate and speculation, down to measuring real costs and real results.

Physical movement.

It is harder to argue, while shovelling, and it really points out who is willing to put their words into actions.

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Wendy Harris

Jun 01, 2008

Lots of interesting comments and ideas from everybody?Thanks especially to Carl for explaining the County?s position and situation?

The thought I had reading through all of the comments was how well this exemplifies one of the largest problems preventing an effective plan to restore Lake Whatcom.  The City vs. County finger-pointing/blame game seems to be stronger than ever. 

It has become well-accepted science that degradation of a water body needs to be addressed on a watershed basis.  The City and County do not have coordinated laws and policies for their respective portions of the watershed.  Unless there is a unified effort at the City, County and State level to implement and enforce coordinated regulations, restoration efforts will not be as effective as possible.

Where political boundaries do not align with the boundaries of the watershed, problems are created.  Where the adjoining municipalities do not work well together, the problem is greatly amplified.  Where there is more focus on blame than on solutions, the problem becomes insurmountable.

Restoring Lake Whatcom is a daunting task.  Comments that place blame on one entity or the other are derisive and do not serve our common goal.  In truth, there is plenty of blame to go all around on both sides.  I urge everyone concerned about this issue to put their good intentions and hard efforts into bringing the City and County together to work on a unified plan for restoring the Lake.

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