The latest annual Lake Whatcom monitoring report by Dr. Matthews indicates that we currently have the highest recorded levels of carcinogenic by-products in our treated drinking water. This report was not discussed at the meeting, but isn’t our water quality the true test of how we are doing?
I believe we are actually regressing in our efforts to restore the lake. When I first started working on lake issues, it was commonly understood we needed to address watershed growth, increased impervious surfaces, loss of forest cover, on-site infiltration, and we knew regulation was an important tool for achieving success.
Today, we no longer talk about regulations, or watershed growth. We talk about “incentives,” and engineered stormwater approaches, which transfer costs from developers to the public. The county and city are proceeding as if we can simply engineer our way to clean water. But this ignores the science regarding comprehensive watershed based approaches and the importance of treating watersheds as holistic ecosystems. Clean water is the byproduct of a healthy lake.
I now believe it was a mistake to adopt “fully engineered” stormwater standards for watershed property. As part of these standards, we eliminated or reduced limits on impervious surface and vegetation retention requirements. Yet these are the very reasons that fully forested coverage is the gold standard for water quality. And a native forest operates synergistically, with several layers, (forest canopy, shrubbery and forest floor vegetation) that are not duplicated under our “native vegetation protection area” standards.
The result is that downhill property owners, such as me, are now dealing with ever greater amounts of stormwater runoff, which in my case is sheeting down the alleyway behind my home. Although I have no control over the infill development that increases the stormwater runoff, and I have no ownership interest in the alley, I am being told that I am responsible for controlling alley stormwater impacts.
I have been put in a situation where I am unable to keep increasing amounts of city stormwater off my property, despite a considerable amount of retrofitting. I do not consider this progress. I would like to see the data comparing the performance of the “fully engineered” stormwater standards to the “fully forested” stormwater standards. These standards have been in place since 2009, and this data should be available as part of a responsible adaptive management approach to lake restoration.
The city and county do not want to use their land use authority, although this places the costs and burdens of water quality impacts on land developers, rather than the public. For example, they issue SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) “Determinations of Nonsignificance” for shoreline development and require either no mitigation, or inadequate mitigation, contrary to scientific evidence regarding degradation of water quality. They continue to approve shoreline permit exemptions, conditional use permits and variances, allowing expanded uses, reduced buffers, and greater amounts of impervious surface.
At a minimum, we need to adopt a policy for no net increase in overwater coverage at Lake Whatcom. In fact, a better policy would be to outright prohibit new and expanded docks, covered moorage, Jet Ski lifts and boathouses. Overwater structures are extremely harmful to the aquatic ecosystem. We have a lake that is already impaired for low oxygen levels, and is now under attack by invasive plants and animals.
Our Asian clam infestation is connected to recreational water-use and shoreline modification. Instead of restricting these activities, we have instituted a publicly funded boat inspection program, which itself has negative impacts due to the need for expanded impervious parking and roads at a waterfront park. And while we are inspecting boats, sea planes fly freely in and out of the watershed and land at their own docks, subject only to self-inspection under the honor system. This undermines the entire boat inspection program, as does the efforts of staff to actually encourage lake recreation. It is past time to reexamine closing the lake to boats and other recreational uses.
In summary, we need to regulate, monitor and enforce provisions for reduced impervious footprint, increased vegetation retention, larger buffers, and on-site infiltration through LID techniques. And we need the city and county to take lake restoration seriously by developing a funded water improvement plan that contains timelines and quantifiable water quality goals. The science is here. We know what to do. What we need is the political will to move forward.