Who Will Be Paying For Lake Whatcom Pollution?

By Wendy HarrisOn Nov 16, 2012
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Lake Whatcom continues to degrade while the county engages in endless delays in updating land use regulations mandated by federal and state laws and the Growth Management Hearings Board. The Whatcom County Council’s primary concern is clearly not the health and safety of 100,000 county residents who rely upon Lake Whatcom's drinking water. Lake water fails to meet water quality standards, requiring the addition of increasing amounts of carcinogenic chemicals.

Proposed Lake Whatcom watershed stormwater standards have stalled while the council reviews the cost of compliance for development of smaller lots, as well as the amount of phosphorus generated by small lots in the watershed. The council is considering an exemption from proposed stormwater standards for small lots (less than 10,000 sq. ft) because they believe it might be too financially burdensome for developers. Under the proposed standards, all new watershed development could “only” exceed natural forested conditions by 25%. Council has not expressed interest in revisiting the 25% allowance. In other words, under any scenerio, revised stormwater standards would still result in excess phosphorus loading.

However, the county is under a requirement from the Washington State Department of Ecology to restore the lake’s water quality. This requires reduction in the level of phosphorus run-off from existing development. Additional phosphorus run-off from future growth will need to be included in the county’s water clean up plan, increasing the overall deduction in phosphorus runoff that must be achieved. Allowing additional phosphorus run-off in the future makes it more difficult and costly to meet water quality standards.

So the county is also examining “potential offsets from the additional phosphorus loading resulting from the potential exemption” of small lots. And remember, the county will also need to off-set the additional 25% excess phosphorus run-off level that is proposed for all other new watershed development.

The Planning Commission has provided the council with its suggestion for a “potential offset” to increased levels of future water pollution. They recommend council create a Lake Whatcom Management District, and assess additional fees on watershed residents. Exhibit D of Agenda Bill 2012-117. (I have heard rumor that this fee could be substantial for watershed residents.)

As a watershed resident, I am disturbed by the suggestion that I pay more in assessed fees than other water users. I moved into my watershed home years after it was built, and years after other watershed development degraded the lake. I hardly think I should pay more than others who had an active hand in damaging the lake’s water quality. And those responsible can not be identified by current geographical location.

The county and city had a responsibility to protect Lake Whatcom from degradation. They were on notice for many years that development was the primary source of degradation, and they have failed to enact adequate land use regulations. They continue to allow recreational use of the lake, and to permit more residential docks, even after the discovery of aquatic invasive species. The general public is at least a little complicit by re-electing officials who failed to make good on campaign promises to restore the lake. The people who profited from lax regulations were the developers who initially built and then sold watershed homes, and those involved in recreational watercraft activities.

Under this potential “solution,” existing watershed residents will be required to subsidize private watershed development. Future residents will be allowed to add to harmful excess phosphorus run-off levels. This will increase Lake Whatcom's water pollution, but those who are polluting will not be held responsible. Rather, the cost will be passed along in the form of an assessed levy against current watershed residents. We do not need a “solution” that protects the profits of private development, knowingly increases degradation of an important public resource, and passes the costs along to a targeted sub-group of water users.

I pay property taxes for schools, although I have no children. I also pay for other municipal services I do not use. I have never objected to this. As part of our government system, we all contribute to necessary government services and facilities. But the “potential offset” solution suggested by the Planning Commission changes the rules. If approved by council, it would reflect the most blatant attempt yet to subsidize the profits of private development with public funds. Of course, council could recognize this as a bad idea, particularly if they received public comment.

The council’s Natural Resource Committee is reviewing the proposed Lake Whatcom stormwater regulations and small lot exemption on Tuesday, November 20, 2012. Tell the council that new watershed developers who pollute should pay for it.. and nobody else. All new watershed development should be subject to a zero excess phosphorus run-off standard in order to protect the lake, and effective stormwater standards should be enacted without unnecessary delay.

About Wendy Harris

Past Writers • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Nov 17, 2012

Wendy,

The idea of the public or common weal (good) for which commonwealths were born is, unfortunately, long out of fashion. 

Dick

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David Camp

Nov 19, 2012

“Under this potential “solution,” existing watershed residents will be required to subsidize private watershed development. Future residents will be allowed to add to harmful excess phosphorus run-off levels. This will increase Lake Whatcom’s water pollution, but those who are polluting will not be held responsible. Rather, the cost will be passed along in the form of an assessed levy against current watershed residents. We do not need a “solution” that protects the profits of private development, knowingly increases degradation of an important public resource, and passes the costs along to a targeted sub-group of water users.”

Well, County Council has to protect the profits of developers and jobs for County staff, after all, and who will pay for these but the taxpayer?

An analogous situation is Bellingham’s solid gold new sewage treatment plant, required for fictitious people expected to live in Bellingham at some point in the future. WHo pays for it? The developers who will profit from building houses? Of course not! We current taxpayers, for whom the existing sewage treatment plant is more than sufficient, have to pay for it. How else can Bellingham continue to grow but by taxing current residents more?

This would only make sense to someone whose job depends on continued growth.

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g.h.kirsch

Nov 19, 2012

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but how does one argue it’s unfair that “... those who are polluting will not be held responsible.” while complaining when watershed residents are expected to, “... pay more in assessed fees than other water users.”

Notwithstanding any distinction between “existing” and “future” watershed residents, just why shouldn’t those polluting, now and in the future, be responsible, and refrain from passing on the costs of remediation to water users who are not polluting?

What theory of damages would make the injured liable?  It seems sensible to make the cost of living in the watershed punitive. 

If we haven’t the courage to simply stop development, it would be nice (though unlikely) if we were to render it financially unattractive.

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Wendy Harris

Nov 19, 2012

Greg, I think you are missing something.  Under this proposal, those who develop new watershed lots will be allowed to pollute, and those who live in the watershed may (under the PC recommendation) be expected to pay.  The County proposal does not address existing development or redevelopment, which is a substantial flaw.  But this is not an excuse to levy me to cover the externalized costs of new watershed growth.

It is much easier to address phosphorus run-off when property is being designed. You can use LID design, do soil-amendment, retain existing vegetation, keep a small footprint. Given what we know now, there is no reason to allow any phosphorus loading from new development.

The problem of existing development is more complex and expensive.  I live at the bottom of a hill.  I tried to deal with stormwater run-off onto my property with french drains, native vegetation and installation of a basement sump pump.  However, because of infill and redevelopment, I now have more run-off onto my property than ever before. I have no problem complying with a retrofit standard, if one was ever enacted,  because that would prevent uphill residents from flooding my property and I could effectively deal with the problem. (In fact, I really would like to see this happen. The soggy puddling condition of my yard in the winter triggers serious breathing problems.)

But not all of the TMDL efforts will involve on site retrofits. There will be construction and funding of expensive capital facilities/stormwater projects, water processing plants,etc. I have lived here for 5 years.  I do not think that I should pay for the costs of degradation that occurred on a wide scale years before I even lived here.  This type of fee should be paid by all the water users.

 

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Wendy Harris

Nov 19, 2012

David, the difference between the two situations is that in the case of the sewage treatment plant, the cost of growth was paid for by all city residents. Under the Planning Commissions recommendation, the cost of new growth will be assessed against other watershed residents, rather than all city water users.  It is bad to make the public pay the externalized costs of increased development, but it is even worse to make a sub-group of the public accountable for these costs.

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