Lake Whatcom Issues Ignored During Elections

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• Topics: Bellingham, Lake Whatcom,

It is now almost perfunctory for candidates for City and County office to list Lake Whatcom among their top priorities.  And while the public overwhelmingly supports Lake restoration and protection, they also appear to be satisfied with such perfunctory statements.  During an election dominated by the SSA coal terminal, the public failed to hold candidates accountable for issues relevant to the restoration and protection of Lake Whatcom.  A number of important events concerning the Lake have occurred during the election with little comment from the public, the candidates or the media.  

Among these events was the discovery of Asiatic clam infestation.  Asiatic clams excrete phosphorus, deplete oxygen, and cause algae blooms.  In other words, they are an independent source of water quality degradation.  The clams have been spreading undetected for approximately 4 years.  While City and County staff are now working on this matter, they have not yet completed their investigation and management recommendations. I do not believe that sufficient resources have been allocated to this important and time sensitive issue.  The clams reproduce in high numbers during the Spring and Summer and are most vulnerable in cold weather.  The clams are too numerous and widely spread to be eradicated, so control efforts will now be an annual cost if we wish to avoid a massive increase in clam population.  

Asiatic clams are generally connected to recreational water activities, and Lake Whatcom’s clam “hot spots” coincide with boat and sea plane launches.  This provides new and meaningful evidence that recreational uses and clean drinking water are incompatible in Lake Whatcom.  A public discussion of this problem would be timely and appropriate.  However, the City and County Staff, supported by City and County Councils, decided that recreational use of the Lake will continue.  The Aquatic Invasive Species Plan for the Lake Whatcom Reservoir will address public education and an inspection program.  By excluding consideration of regulatory restrictions, the City and County have essentially removed from public consideration the issue of how the Lake should be used subsequent to clam infestation.

The County recently released its response to the Water Quality Improvement Plan mandated under the Lake Whatcom TMDL, and the Planning Staff held two meetings to provide information and obtain public feedback on proposed updates to County stormwater requirements for new development.  The revised regulations, which have the preliminary approval of the Washington Department of Ecology, will be reviewed by the County Planning Commission in less than 2 weeks.

This appears to be a positive action until you consider that the actual purpose of the proposal is to allow additional development in the Lake Whatcom watershed by attempting to prevent additional phosphorus loading from new development. Because these updated regulations are not intended to restore water quality, it is a misnomer to call this a “Water Quality Improvement Plan”.

At best, updated stormwater regulations will maintain the status quo for the Lake’s water quality.  At worst, they will increase water quality degradation.  The revisions are premised on the belief that Lake degradation is caused by stormwater run-off, but this fails to consider the excess phosphorus and oxygen depletion attributable to the Asiatic clams.  As a result, the stormwater regulations may not be adequate. This uncertainty is increased because the Department of Ecology will not be adjusting its TMDL model to account for the impacts of the clams.  

Since updated stormwater standards do not apply to the undeveloped watershed lots that have vested development rights, or land use permit extensions, (courtesy of Council Member Crawford), their resulting effectiveness is reduced. In fact, the County does not even know how many watershed lots will be exempted from updated stormwater requirements.  Additionally, if the County believes that new stormwater requirements are necessary to protect the Lake Whatcom watershed, shouldn’t they be imposed on the entire County, which includes a number of other impaired watersheds? 

It appears that the revised stormwater provisions are motivated by politics more than water quality concerns. The purpose of a TMDL is to improve water quality to meet water quality standards.  Using the Lake Whatcom TMDL to justify more watershed development, the primary source of water quality degradation, is contrary to the TMDL’s intended purpose.  The County has justified this action as an appropriate response to the City’s attempt to close the watershed to new water withdrawals.  The logic of this explanation and its relevancy to the TMDL process escapes me, particularly when the City’s primary concern was to protect its priority water rights, a matter that is not addressed through the County’s revised stormwater regulations.

Of even greater concern is the fact that these issues were not raised during the current elections.  Candidates have no incentive to broach sensitive and complex matters during an election.  With insufficient media coverage, the burden falls on the voting public to remain educated, informed and aggressive in questioning candidates on these specific Lake issues.  Moreover, this allows the public, rather than the candidates, to set the agenda and control the issues that dominate the elections.  Unfortunately, the public meetings concerning Lake Whatcom have been poorly attended.  (Kudos to candidate Christina Maginnis for her regular attendance.)

It is not enough to say that we support Lake restoration and protection.  It is not enough to require candidates to state that they support Lake restoration and protection.  It is painfully clear that the public can not rely upon the City, County or State to take meaningful action.  We must demand it, and we must let our elected officials know, beginning the moment they first become candidates, that we are watching and that we require full accountability.  The only way to do this is to ourselves be informed and involved.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

g.h.kirsch

Nov 07, 2011

In as much as the current city administration, in-spite of resistance, did petition Ecology for appropriate enforcement of state water laws, it seems unfair to lump them in with the state and county for criticism.

Had there been some popular support for the city’s action, rather than political maneuvering by those hoping to dislodge the mayor, the current administration would probably have pressed the issue in Superior Court.

On the other hand, if the other candidate for the mayor’s office hadn’t signaled their intent not to pursue aggressive actions versus the state and county, hence making it a de facto campaign issue, we might already have seen the city push ahead.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the effort to force Ecology to apply the law after the election.

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John Watts

Nov 07, 2011

It took DOE’s declaring Lake Whatcom an impaired waterbody in 1999 to wake up enough people to take ANY meaningful action, and that was far from a unanimous vote in the City Council. Nil in the County.
It then took DOE 10 years to complete & issue its TMDL, which was met with was has basically a yawn, from the CITY. Again, nil in the County.

The County has been a periodic player at best for years, the exception being when there was a progressive majority on the Council. Pete has done very little except talk, excepting the Reconveyance he and McShane tried to ram through. Now, even that looks problematic because the County has done nothing to find adequate funding for a non-existent plan.

So, tell me why you are surprised the Lake isn’t even in the top 10 priorities, except for talk? There is no strong consensus for either County or City to do anything, because they are clueless about what to do, and even more so about raising any funding!

And, please don’t appeal to the County to do anything concerning storm water Countywide! That is a bigger hurdle than focusing on Lake Whatcom -our primary water supply for half the County.
Heck, there are still people who don’t agree that storm water is a problem, much less something they need to pay to mitigate.

I hate to be pessimistic, but that’s hard to avoid after watching these gyrations for over 12 years. When the City’s water treatment filters get so clogged it is reflected in water rates; when the treated water starts tasting really bad; when the lake level retreats below what recreation enthusiasts like; when the annual turnover smell fouls the air and claims of property value loss are made; those are what must happen to achieve the level of awareness necessary to do anything substantial.
Of course, by then it will be too late!

When the City can’t decide to do anything, why do expect the County to?
At least the City could decide to raise the surcharge by degrees over time to pay off its borrowed bonds and acquire additional property; agree to help compensate the County for running it’s Reconveyance [if any]; decide to set interim limits on PO4 in the tributaries running through it to the Lake; charge boaters a fee to examine their watercraft for clams, milfoil, etc before using the Lake as their playground; continue to fund projects that reduce impervious surfaces and/or detain runoff with vegetated land, etc.

There are lots of things that could be done, but none qualify as a silver bullet - more like silver BBs. One of things that could be done is to stop pointing fingers at folks who can help get a few of these things done, because continuous campaign posturing gets nothing done but does disgust people, which is cumulatively demotivating.

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Wendy Harris

Nov 07, 2011

According to Greg, I should not criticize the City.  According to John, I should not criticize anyone with decision-making power, lest I disgust people. (And John, I am not posturing for any campaign. I have disgusted both County and City, and candidates on all sides.)

However unintentional, these attitudes discourage public participation, which is the opposite of my intention. Sound and open government requires freedom to criticize the action and inaction of elected officials without reprisal. 

It actually takes courage to stand up and criticize the actions of people, staff and elected officials, whom you know and often respect.  But I must get over my discomfort, and they must get over their anger, so that we can have a true participatory government.

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Larry Horowitz

Nov 07, 2011

Wendy,

As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Far from disgusting, in your work to protect Lake Whatcom and our quality of life, I behold great beauty.

Thank you for everything you do.

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John Servais

Nov 07, 2011

Two items.  First, I’ve finally convinced this web content program that we are no longer on daylight savings time.  All comments from now on should have the correct time.  The correct posting times have now been put on the above comments.

Second, the whole purpose of this website is to provide criticism of government actions when they deserve criticism.  Wendy provides some of the most carefully researched and intelligent commentary in our community.  I am very pleased for the few times she has posted here.  Greg has a strong tendency to ascribe personal motives to anyone he disagrees with - and John Watts gets angry anytime any of us criticize actions by the city council during the time he served. 

I have provided links to both their websites in the right column - and they seem to grumble a lot themselves at their sites about government actions.  A respect for the writer’s right to criticize government actions should be basic on this website.  What did they come here looking for?  Romantic poetry?

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Mike Rostron

Nov 07, 2011

What would it take to protect the lake for the future?
No more building or development around the lake or its drainage area, period.  Nothing, nada. 
No logging whatsoever.
No motorized watercraft, period.
No new road construction, period.
Probably a pipe extension to the deeper larger basin.
Faster lake flushing - might help.

Will any of the above happen?  Absolutely not.  A foul lake in our lifetime is virtually certain, in our children’s lifetimes, absolutely certain, but I think the water will remain serviceable for washing, toilet flushing, and showering (with a filter).  Ultimately, we’ll have to get our drinking water elsewhere.

Sorry not to be too sanguine about clean-up chances, but unless Bellingham is willing to erect a fence around the water source (like many cities) and stop ALL development it’s a done deal.  No one is making it a big election issue because at some level everyone knows it’s a lost cause, but we must all give it lip service.  As W.C. Fields said, “I never drink water because of the disgusting things fish do int it.”  He might have added that in most cases it is the people, not the fish that are disgusting…

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Tip Johnson

Nov 07, 2011

Yay, Wendy! I love your stuff.  Please don’t stop writing because you disgust curmudgeons. As you say, that’s your (our) job! Greg and John are not only relatively new to this stuff, but also may have lost their perspective as concerned citizens by virtue of their political involvement and, well, just the way they roll.

I sat on the first Joint City/County Lake Watershed Management Committee for years, reviewing the first Lake Whatcom Management Plan (Uh…1985 or ‘86 and on, I’m not exactly sure).  Of course, it was not a plan at all, rather a menu of options to argue about - is recreation compatible, can development continue, etc., ad nauseum?  And argue we did!  As you can imagine, the players were all picked to ensure no results.

Even having lived in B’ham for a decade prior, I was initially surprised that Lake Whatcom was our water supply.  How could it be?  No one opens their watershed to boating and development - unless it is already fubar, like the Mississippi River.

The committee became so dysfunctional that I eventually raised the following motion at the beginning of nearly every meeting, “Before we waste a lot more time, I move we decide if we want to do the least possible, the most possible or a middling job of trying to preserve the quality of our drinking water.”  (The so-called “Plan” options were arranged in that kind of order.) Obviously, this motion regularly failed for lack of a second, even from “Watershed Stalwart” Louis Bjornson.  Instead, stony silence.

I think it remains the preliminary decision we still need.  If we want to do the most, our choices become crystal clear.  If we want to do the least or a middling job, we keep lots of options and may never have to decide until the foot-thick carpet of rotting algae, dead fish and flies appear one day.  And it does happen like that - sudden, irreversible, catastrophic change.  All indications are that we are headed for this scenario - especially all the talk, no walk behavior of elected officials.

I’ll give Greg a title credit.  Apart from his momentary political affiliations, he has actually done some good work toward restricting continued withdrawals. But for the rest, let me say, uh, well, nothing much!

Long ago, further subdivision should have been foreclosed through rezoning of the watershed.  This police power is the community’s first and best defense against inappropriate land uses.  It is a public safety no-brainer. Acquisition could then be focused on platted lots of record, upon which development is otherwise authorized to occur.  Sewage overflows would have already been prevented from entering the lake. Failed septic systems and leaky sewers would have been corrected. Provision for treatment and/or diversion of suburban runoff should have been made. Water rights on the Middle Fork diversion, possibly essential to preserving the water supply, would be preserved.  Boats would be off and the clams would not be in.

All indications are that we are not doing what we must to protect the lake and our water supply.  The fact that coal trains, about which we can do nothing, have taken center stage is truly, as you say, a travesty and a public interest oversight of enormous proportion. Thanks again!

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g.h.kirsch

Nov 08, 2011

For what it’s worth, if criticism of Wendy, certainly it was the mildest of all.  Perhaps gentle as a romantic poet might make.

In my haste, perhaps I failed to sufficiently make my point.  I said the city should not be lumped in with the county and state; this because they did undertake what I feel was a strategically significant action.

Understated was what, I guess, would be special criticism of the administration for being intimidated by the upcoming political campaign and a cacophony of voices critical of such things as “going it alone.”  (Which of course is the only way you can go when there’s no one else who will go with you!)

The last thing I intended to do was discourage Wendy from her dedicated efforts on behalf of the lake and its watershed.  Our differences are few on the issue.

Perhaps too subtle for some, my real hope was to remind others of the efficacy of the city’s petition to end development in the watershed by stopping the clear over appropriation of water necessary for building permits and subdivision, and, regardless of the outcome of the election, stimulate popular support for continuing the legal effort as Ecology seems complacent and ready to duck the issue.

The notion that development will be curtailed by political action (zoning) is the stuff of fairy tales, not even deserving the attention of romantic poets.

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Tip Johnson

Nov 08, 2011

Oh, ouch, Greg!  Not poetic enough for you?  Then we are really in trouble because, 1) Every property owner has a constitutional right to a reasonable use of their property and, 2) Local jurisdictions determine reasonable uses only through zoning, after which we are literally hamstrung by the Vested Rights Doctrine, especially, to wit:

“A property owner has a vested right to use his property under the terms of the zoning ordinance applicable thereto. A building or use permit must issue as a matter of right upon compliance with the ordinance. The discretion permissible in zoning matters is that which is exercised in adopting the zone classifications with the terms, standards, and requirements pertinent thereto, all of which must be by general ordinance applicable to all persons alike. The acts of administering a zoning ordinance do not go back to the questions of policy and discretion which were settled at the time of the adoption of the ordinance. Administrative authorities are properly concerned with questions of compliance with the ordinance, not with its wisdom.” (State ex rel. Ogden v. City of Bellevue, 45 Wash. 2d 492, 495, 275 P.2d 899, 901-02 (1954)).

Get that?  Compliance, not wisdom!

It is well documented that development has been the primary engine of Lake Whatcom’s deterioration. If elected officials won’t shoulder their public health responsibility and do the one thing that would most benefit the lake, we may as well get ready for much higher treatment costs and lower water quality, find a new supply or move.

Sorry for not rhyming!

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John Watts

Nov 08, 2011

I’m glad to help spice up this discussion!
Let’s be clear; politics is the art of the possible, and often this does not match up well with expectations.
Defending the City or County isn’t worth the words, because this simply translates into whom we have elected and in whom we trust to get stated priorities actually accomplished.
The early years when I was privileged to serve had some things going for them; public awareness [thanks largely to The Initiative Group]; the DOE 303 {d) declaration; the focus on actions necessary to help the City begin to do its part in protecting this watershed; the Watershed Acquisition & Preservation Ordinance; the Stormwater Ordinance rate adjustment (which actually raised funds to do this work); the active WRIA 1 program, involving County, City, PUD 1, the Lummis & the Nooksacks, which looked comprehensively at the entire suite of water problems in the County & their interrelationships; the Silver Beach Task Force, which informed a number of citizens about problems & possible solutions with the Reservoir; to name a few.
These things happened then, but have tapered off rather dramatically since.
You tell me why; did folks think the problem was solved? did sufficient resistance arise to thwart further progress? did the governments run out of ideas of what else to do? was money a problem? were the mixed reports issued by the City confusing enough to cast doubts? did the County get bogged down in its moratorium that allowed hundreds of lots to be developed in a very short time? did the BIA & other opponents succeed in planting seeds & weeds of doubt, fear & suspicion? did candidates of all stripes seize upon Reservoir preservation as really effective rhetoric? did the Boats-Off fiasco help? Maybe you can think of other potential reasons that interest, coupled with action declined?
My comment about too much constant criticism stands; too much whining does turn people off! And, without a wider base of advocates stepping up, it becomes rather easy to marginalize those who speak up and render them less effective. Ask me how I know!
If the perception is among some that I spend too much effort defending the City during my tenure, then so be it. That is the time I know well and it is largely what I bother to write about. Thank goodness some folks even deign to read it, whether critics or not!
No one is forced to read anything, much less agree with it. You got something better, post it. Otherwise, the stuff that is posted stays that way whether it makes any difference or not.
And thank you Tip for suffering through so many years of non-action that it seemed a triumph to pass the famous Joint Resolution in 1991/92 that actually spelled out some of the actions needed to preserve the Lake, er Reservoir! Without that document, we’d have had to create its substitute, and how much longer do you imagine that would have taken?
Criticism is great, so go to it. Lord knows there are enough targets to play ‘whack-a-mole’ with.
Just make sure to walk your talk in such a way that folks will believe you, perhaps emulate that walk, and maybe pass that positive energy on to someone else.
Best of luck to all who care!

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g.h.kirsch

Nov 08, 2011

Regardless of zoning or vesting, Tip, you can not get a building permit, or approval of a long or short plat, without adequate proof of water availability.

In a basin closed to new withdrawals, including water rights not yet put to beneficial use, you can not demonstrate water availability and hence can’t build or subdivide.

Since the Hubbard ruling in the Okanagon, the rule is when surface waters are closed to new withdrawals, no withdrawal of ground or surface water in hydraulic continuity with those closed waters is permitted.

Lake Whatcom and Whatcom Creek are closed to new withdrawals, hence the entire watershed, in hydraulic continuity with the lake and creek, is closed to new withdrawals.

Since no water is available in the watershed, no building or subdivision should be permitted.

It’s that simple. 

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink.
Now if only some of you would take the time to think!

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Jack Petree

Nov 08, 2011

Jack O. Petree Says,

Wendy,

Not true.  You may remember Clayton, as a candidate for mayor, called for dedicating the 50% overcharge the city charges homes outside the city limits for sewer and water to projects meant to stop pollution from running into the lake.  He also called for doing projects that actually had the capacity to capture potential pollution before it runs into the lake rather than pretending buying parcels of land that would mostly never be developed would do much for the lake.  Last, he called for implementing an actual TDR (transfer of development rights) program to transfer growth from the lake into the city in place of the pretend program we have now.


The response from those claiming to be interested in water quality and environmental enhancement was a collective yawn. 

The call is always for more regulation.  The call should be for more action but, then, if one acts the problems begin to be solved and are unavailable for the semiannual litany of “The lake is sacred and is my most important priority.”

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David Stalheim

Nov 08, 2011

Wendy and I are two of the citizen plaintiffs that have appealed the County’s “plan” for rural areas, including Lake Whatcom.  Jean Melious is representing us in front of the Growth Management Hearings Board.  The city filed a separate challenge.

Making these challenges takes time, more time and money.  I don’t recall the last weekend I have had that didn’t include research and writing on the travesty of county land use decisions, including in Lake Whatcom watershed. Anyone wanting to help Wendy and I pay the $1,500 in copy charges and mailing to take this on?

Last night Jean and I documented the effect of the County’s action in the watershed.  The County thinks that 1 acre lots are acceptable because there will only be 8 created.  Well, they lied—or are seriously confused, about how many lots could be created.  While any more than one lot is one too many, the County’s own data shows that their “plan” for our watershed would have the potential for 144 lots.

So, keep up the debate.  Meanwhile, send your money to those willing to take the challenge on.  And vote those rascals out—next time?

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Wendy Harris

Nov 08, 2011

Jack, are you actually accusing those that advocate on behalf of Lake Whatcom of only being interested in the ability to complain?  If that were the case, I could find many other things to complain about? for example, people who blog and make false allegations. 

We can not engineer our way out of water quality degradation, no matter how much you would like to pretend otherwise.  It is only part of the solution. Protecting and restoring watershed land is still the best way to protect and restore the Lake.

This week, the City and County jointly produced a cost/benefit analysis of phosphorus-reducing activities in the Lake Whatcom watershed.  Guess what? Reducing watershed development through downzones, lots consolidation and land purchase were listed among the most cost effective methods of preventing phosphorus loading on a per pound basis, as was compliance with the City?s regulatory ordinance for new watershed development. Infiltration, bioretention and biofiltration were listed as among the most expensive methods of reducing phosphorus.

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Jack Petree

Nov 09, 2011

Jack O. Petree says,

Wendy,

You should check out the King County website regarding Lake Washington.

The historic event in the clean up of the Lake is considered to be the removal of sewer outfalls from the Lake when King County adopted a new approach to treatment and massivly reduced runoff and outfall waters into the lake.

By the way, why is no one concerned that Everson takes its water from the Nooksack after it has run by the toxic waste dump on the Nooksack reservation while Lynden draws water after it has run through the digestive systems of Everson and Nooksack residents and then passes it on to Ferndale after it’s run through the systems of Lynden residents?

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John Watts

Nov 10, 2011

Can you spot Petree’s major mistake?
Lake Whatcom is a drinking water RESERVOIR.
Lake Washington is not! Seattle preserved its reservoirs many years ago.
BTW, Ferndale will be buying water from PUD1, not taking it directly from the Nooksack soon.
And, US Astronauts drink their own body fluids safely, but you wouldn’t want to pay those treatment costs!
Too bad the WRIA1 program has been so dumbed down that folks don’t know more about this region’s factual water challenges.
That allows some ‘poetic license’, doesn’t it?

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