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Remember Lake Whatcom?

By On

At the risk of displeasing friend and foe alike, may I ask what has been accomplished this past year to fix Lake Whatcom and protect Bellingham’s water supply? The answer, candidly, is little or nothing. Oh perhaps some new focus groups were created. How many does that give us now?

With the most at stake, you’d have thought Bellingham would have thrown more at it. A year ago, the incoming administration identified the health of the Lake Whatcom reservoir as one of the most critical issues to be addressed. And at least the new mayor seemed to understand that ever increasing human activity in the watershed, residential growth (and the continued interception of oxygen rich groundwater to serve that growth) were the forces driving the reservoir to destruction.

And shortly thereafter the Department of Ecology published their study fundamentally confirming the relationship between residential development and the declining lake. Notwithstanding the seriousness of Ecology’s appraisal and recommendations, after years in production, the report hardly surprised anyone who thought honestly about the situation and understood the sad history of policy in the watershed.

For a short while Bellingham actually opposed the county’s determination to interpret its comprehensive plan and regulations to allow the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District to extend and expand water service throughout the rural watershed and facilitate still more development.

But then there was a change of direction. The city abandoned the action that could have corrected the erroneous interpretation of county code and stopped the water district’s expansion on the north shore. They believed they could take over, merge, or somehow control the water district’s policies instead.

The foremost proponent of this approach was the Director of Public Works. With his support, the city allowed the water district to complete the improvements the city had earlier opposed; and position the water district to use these expanded capabilities to service several thousand new residences on the north shore. Perhaps he was preoccupied with finding more profitable employment and forgot the ostensible reason for the takeover. Or maybe he really thought more growth, more water lines and sewers and more treatment plants were the answer. In any case, he’s destined for the City of Destiny now.

In August, the county executive, the mayor and Steve Hood, the writer of Ecology’s report, took the stage before a packed house at the City Club, who assembled to learn the implications of the state’s study and hear the specific plans of the county and city to right this situation. In one of the more poignant political moments locally of late, Pete Kremen, embarking on his usual rambling odyssey of platitudes, was shouted down by the crowd, who demanded in one voice he get specific. To no avail. I’m sure retirement took on a new and more attractive perspective for our indefatigable campaigner.

Mayor Pike, better able to discern the audience’s interest in more than mere words, laid out for the gathered several initiatives already underway down at City Hall. And if only by comparison, he sounded pretty good. Of course central was the negotiations to bring the water district under the influence of the city and convert its program from destruction to protection of the watershed and the reservoir.

The mayor also told the audience, and Mr. Hood, that the city would soon be petitioning Ecology for a clear policy in the watershed that would preclude future interception of groundwater by un-permitted wells to support otherwise impossible development projects.

So, where are we now? Nowhere. The county permissiveness continues unabated. The county council is too intimidated to even take up the issue and address the policy of allowing urban water systems to be extended into rural areas. And, believe it or not, the county has even chosen to look the other way while the water district shamelessly ignores the law and proposes to provide sewer service for watershed developers. (Thankfully, Bellingham has challenged this county policy.)

The county’s answer to protecting the reservoir seems to be increasing tourism and recreation on it and its watershed by converting forest lands into parks. Nearby land owners who hoped for such a change are already at work developing plans for more residential growth around the lake when the market allows. Asked to declare a moratorium on building in the watershed, the county declined. And the county still will not acknowledge that their acceptance of un-permitted wells as a source of water is contrary to the law in a basin where Ecology could not permit new wells.

And of course we all know that there will be no change at the water district. The city will not be absorbing the district and will not be requiring they temper their perceived “duty to serve” with their greater duty not to harm Lake Whatcom. And Bellingham’s acquiescence during the pre nuptial bliss has paved the way for the water district to continue its ravage of the watershed. (Thank you Dick)

Bellingham did institute a largely symbolic building moratorium in their small portion of the watershed. But even little steps are steps. The city ducked though, and backed away from the idea of a full environmental analysis of the county’s park plan before the county began the process that will stimulate increased activity and development in the watershed.

And the city has no known plans to challenge the county again on the extension of urban water service outside areas designated for urban growth. In spite of the mayor’s warning to Ecology during his statement at the City Club, there hasn’t been any request that Ecology declare the Lake Whatcom watershed a closed basin, ending the acceptance of un-permitted wells around the reservoir as a sufficient source of water to build.

I believe remediation and protection of Lake Whatcom are the hostage of political intimidation and cowardice. Key legislators have come under the influence of a building industry lobby that understands too well that reasonable enforcement of water law would be the end to their abuse of the public. The saddest example of this was the passage of a law that redefined developers as municipalities and allowed them to hoard unused water rights and increase their use of water even where public waters and fish populations were suffering. Ruled unconstitutional, these folks are still hoping the state Supreme Court will see it differently.

With that lobby’s support, those politicians gain more influence. And of course we have our own local examples; little foxes manipulating zoning for their own hen houses.

But the real cowardice is probably driven by fear of well heeled special interests, landowners, speculators and developers who are substantial campaign contributors and influential in the selection of candidates for local office. The real shame is that this is so clearly a conflict between the public’s and private interests. There should be no confusion about the duty of the elected.

On the one hand, you have a few loudly proclaiming for their property rights; hang the public if this mean the destruction of the lake. On the other, you have the many largely not paying attention, maybe even swayed by the rhetoric of the few. So you have the elected, intimidated by the power of the few, realizing the majority don’t get it or aren’t that interested, playing it safe. Let’s not look like we’re doing nothing, but let’s not stir up trouble for ourselves come re-election.

The fact is, there is a clear and significant distinction between property rights and water rights. All of our state’s waters belong to the public, and all of our public officials have a duty to protect them. The body of water law is all based on the principle that the use of water shall not damage the public interest. There is no right to take the public’s water away from an earlier use. Developers and water districts can’t hoard water rights. And where the protection of our lakes, streams and rivers is inadequate, or where our fishery resources are threatened, water is not available for new or increased use for developers. Where the abuse of the public’s interest entails destroying the very water source the abusers exploit, ignorance and self interest are confused and compounded.

There can not be a property right to develop where there can be no right to use the public’s water. No one can demonstrate a right to intercept the water needed to sustain the reservoir.

So who will champion a real effort, not just another committee or panel, to stop the damage to the watershed and protect the lake? Will it be Pete Kremen? Will it be Dan Pike? The city council? The county council? Well it won’t be Ecology, sua sponte. Somebody’s got to take the initiative. Until they do, let’s not hear any more platitudes from these elected officials on how critical they feel it is.

Now that the great hope of controlling the water district has been dashed on the rocks of reality, may I humbly suggest that Bellingham again get out in front and lead the legal effort to enforce laws that will save the lake. Opposition to the extension of sewers is welcome, but only the restriction of water service will stop the residential growth that has been identified as the problem.

Or, of course, we can just talk about it some more.

About g.h.kirsch

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Dec 29, 2008

Well done, Greg.  Thank you.  As always, political courage is at a premium.  Let’s see if any of our leaders step up to the plate.

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Craig Mayberry

Dec 29, 2008

Greg,

I also appreciate the thoughts and the conclusions, my only question is the analysis of the effect of special interests on the process.  I suspect that Councilmembers Kelly, Weimer, Fleetwood, Caskey-Schrieber, and almost everyone on the Bellingham city council would take exception to the comments on special interests donations.  Yes, developers and the building industry do give a lot of money to local politicians, but very little of that goes towards the people that have majority control over both city and county. 

I suspect that what we are seeing is the issue if far more complex than maybe we believe it is.  Making campaign promises is one thing; actually doing something is much different.  It is easy for people like us to stand on the sidelines and make editorial comments on how little is happening, but when faced with the actual constraints in dealing with Lake Whatcom progress is much more difficult.  You are balancing many different ?cooks in kitchen?, plus funding issues, plus existing regulatory requirements, plus many potential solutions, each tainted by various viewpoints of concern.  The amount of work and effort required to bulldoze your way through all of that is tremendous. 

I also do not want to absolve our local elected officials, as they do have ultimate responsibility for solving the problems, and they all said during their campaign that it was important.  At some point someone is going to have to step up and spend the time, energy and passion to just get it done.  I do not doubt that our elected officials would like to fix the problem; my criticism of them is I do not think any of them are willing to really spend the time, energy and passion to actually do it.

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Larry Horowitz

Dec 29, 2008

Craig,

I agree with your observation that elected officials - particularly city and county council members ?need to invest more time and energy on our drinking water issues.  Unfortunately, council members get paid to work essentially a day or so each week.  Considering the complex challenges facing Bellingham and Whatcom County, it may be time to elect full time council members.  The need for full-timers should not be based on the absolute size of a municipality.  A more relevant consideration just might be the rate of growth being experienced.

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Craig Mayberry

Dec 29, 2008

Larry,

The time factor of them being only very part time as county and city council members certainly plays a role.  I thought of bring that issue up in my post, but could not find a clean way to do it.  I think having full-time members would help, but you still have to have the intangible leadership skills and passion to get it done so I still think you need to have the right person in the right role, and I am not sure we have that yet (although Carl Weimer would be the best chance we have).

Craig

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Ham Hayes

Dec 29, 2008

Greg,

Thanks for your excellent observations and assessment.  I’m currently visiting my old stomping grounds in Austin, Texas.  Since I left Austin a dozen years ago, this mostly progressive part of Texas has managed to urbanize a couple of hundred square miles of lake district and aquifers. As in Bellingham, I don’t detect any outrage here about the shortage of fresh water, increased runoff and increased flood danger as a result of that urbanization. 

So where is the outrage about promises unkept?  Where is the report card from our elected ones on how they have served us over the last year?  Is it possible that we the voters got just what we wanted?  It might seem so since there is not a lot of evident progress, and there are no howling mobs carrying torches outside of city hall and county council chambers. 

Is it possible that our culture has become so “don’t rock the boat” in attitude that we will put up with just about any ill action or incompetence from public OR private sectors?  Yep, I think we voted for ourselves and that’s just what we got.

Thanks again,
Ham

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Larry Horowitz

Dec 29, 2008

Craig,

Again, I agree.  Our electeds need leadership skills and passion to overcome the challenges we face as a community.  But they also need to be rewarded for making the kind of time commitment necessary to tackle these problems head-on.  I believe we have already elected a number of council members in both Bellingham and Whatcom County who qualify - and many of them already make a substantial time commitment.  But we need qualified council members in every seat, and we need to fairly compensate them to adequately address these issues.  I believe that until we do, we?ll never be able to hold them accountable.  Are we ready for full time councils?

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Craig Mayberry

Dec 29, 2008

There is one unintended consequence of full-time politicians that should be highlighted.  If a current council member loses an election, no big deal they still have their other job.  If a full-time politician loses an election, then they have to find another job.  If we move everyone to full-time then when elections do come around the stakes are much higher and therefore the need for special interest money may go up as well.  This discussion creates the catch 22 of politics.  You need time to solve problems which drives you to full-time politicians, but full-time politicians are more desperate to keep their job and may more closely align themselves with special interests.  As we have learned, politicians, like CEO’s, are human too and may seek out their own best interests before that of the people that elect them (you can insert many names from both parties as examples).

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Larry Horowitz

Dec 29, 2008

In more ways than one, you get what you pay for.

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g.h. kirsch

Dec 29, 2008

Thank you all for your additions and observations. 

For my part, though you’d think that the so called gang of four on the county council, and all those liberal/progressive types elected to the city council, would just put their boots to the two executive’s asses, for some reason they don’t.  And it ain’t because they’re part-timers.

We already have full time politicians in those executive positions, and they have numerous departments sucking down tax dollars already.

All I’m hoping is they will take an initial, simple step and get their legal departments working.  These lawyers seem to find it easier to find reasons why they can’t do anything than pick up the gauntlet and fight for a take on the law that will do something to stop the desecration of the watershed.

I’m just tired of them all.  All these council members, executives, mayors and department heads have accomplished so far is to find a rationale for not acting.

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Marian Beddill

Dec 30, 2008

So, recognizing the inaction and the (real, though sad) political / economic constraints which do cramp movement by our elected officials, I must ask a fundamental question - and pose a fundamental challenge to everyone. 

“What are the solid goals to be achieved - the final one and the ones just steps before that?”  And the corollary - what can be done - what is being done - to address those specific achievable goals?  Thinking and planning backwards from the goal, not only forwards from the current situation, is essential. 

The final physical goal that I am aware of is a substantial reduction of the algae content of the water in the Reservoir. As best I understand it, that can only be achieved by a substantial reduction of the phosphorus content of the lake water.  And I am confident that the only way to reduce that, is to reduce the phosphorus content of the water which flows from the land to the lake.

And, the step before that has two tracks - either take the phosphorus out of the water that is flowing to the lake, or keep the phosphorus from ever getting into that surface water in the first place.

Everything I hear, from every source I have found or been told, says that trying to take the phosphorus out of the creek water is a losing proposition - it does not work.  The only chemical treatment methods which maybe could work, are big, expensive treatment plants, and you’d need either (a) one for every creek or (b) a new piping system - itself expensive and a polluter during construction.  We already have treatment for our drinking water taken from the polluted Reservoir, though even that will surely have to be expanded if nothing else is done. 

So the step that I see as definitive is keeping the phosphorus from ever getting into the surface water in the first place (in substantial quantities - zero is impossible and probably not essential.)  Is that achievable?  I think so. How?  Don’t bring phosphorus products into the watershed area.  Don’t put phosphorus products on the ground in the watershed area.  (Adding that the same is true for many other pollutants, beyond just phosphorus.) 

So, one step before that:  How to stop the putting of phosphorus on the ground?  An obvious method would be to not let people go into the Reservoir watershed - the usual situation in most communities with a lake as water source. Sadly, we have lost that as a practical option, and we do have traffic and development (some level of urbanization) in the watershed. 

So the next-best thing is to convince the vast majority of the people who DO go into our reservoir watershed lands, to act in a responsible way - by eliminating their contributions of phosphorus (and other harmful chemicals) to the surface water. 

And the prior steps needed to get THAT to happen?  Inform people, and convince them they should do the right thing.  So, lets take that activity back to its antecedent step - what does it take to get people to change their behavior?

Who can answer that for us?  What could be the role of the City and the County and the State - and even private organizations and citizens, in changing the behavior of the populace?

Your turn to speak.

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Tip Johnson

Dec 30, 2008

It’s actually been 24 years since the first Lake Whatcom Watershed Management Plan was published and “protecting the lake” became the perennial “top priority” of every candidate and administration.

Trying to convince people to change their behavior is a pleasant idea, but I’m not sure it will overcome the allure of lake view homes, wakeboards and waterskis.  Head out to north shore some fine summer afternoon and watch the fun.  Runabouts zipping around, pulling kids on tubes.  Treated dock boards bridging the water to immaculate, weed-free lawns.  Giant homes with five cars and two seadoos.  Once, campaigning out there for somebody, I came a cross a washing machine in a carport, discharging into a drainage ditch (Yes, I warned them and then reported it). It doesn’t take long to feel like the lake game has already been lost.

Some may feel uncomfortable with speculation regarding campaign contributions - or worse.  But then, please explain.  A very small number of voters have real estate or other special interests in the watershed.  A very large number have interests in drinking water.  There is an overriding public health issue, yet the net effect of our “management” has been steady deterioration.

Greg is right.  Shut off the tap.  No more water, no more development.  There are a few other regulatory angles: Proper zoning, better land disturbance ordinances, elimination of septic systems, remediation of the hokey sewer system out there,  restrictions on various soluble chemicals, e.g. detergents, yard and garden products, etc.

With proper zoning that established rational “reasonable uses” for the watershed, acquisition efforts would shift focus from large tracts to existing, platted lots of record. Might need to reduce the goose population, too!

(Coastal geese are each estimated to contribute up to 638 grams of soluble phosphorus/year.)

Marion is right.  Phosphorus is tough to beat.  Plenty is already stored in lake sediments which, originating in runoff as turbidity from land disturbances, actually scrubs nutrients from the water column, settling on the lake bottom, effectively masking and delaying the ultimate impact of development. But lakes are complex systems and these nutrients can end up being released more quickly.  You’ll know this just happened when a foot thick carpet of algae and dead fish suddenly appears on the lake, gracing area homes with a powerful stench.  It happens suddenly and to lakes much larger than ours.

The upshot is we need to do everything we can before it is too late - if it isn’t already.  We need to take a public health emergency approach, because it could already be one.  We just can’t know. Shouldn’t we err on the side of safety?  Otherwise, we may need to install stormwater intercepts, treatment and lots of other expensive stuff.

We should consider crafting a plan to destroy the lake and make it our top priority.  Our record of efficacy suggests that may be the most expeditious political route to preserving and improving lake water quality.

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Bill Black

Jan 02, 2009

I remember Lake Whatcom. That’s the lake I’ve been taking my dog to the last coupla winters, Bloedel Donovan Park off-leash area. In addition, I look at the lake just about every Winter day because I live in the watershed.
  Full disclosure here; I’m ideologically opposed to the use of herbicides, particularly around a drinking water source and/or where people (particularly children) and animals are likely to come into contact with those herbicides….places like the above mentioned park.
  “Bloedel” is a mud hole. It is also a weed free zone with very sparse, at best, turf everywhere not just in the heavy traffic zones. I do not know how that “weed freeness” could be maintained without the use of herbicides. A little birdie, along with my eyes, tells me they are being used.
  I also remember the Silver Beach Ordinance. The Silver Beach Ordinance, along with some other provisions, prohibits the groundbreaking of over 500 square feet during the Winter months which is designed to avoid the transport of phosphorous into Lake Whatcom. Bloedel, by the city’s mismanagement effectively violates the SB ordinance every Winter day.

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