Living Wage and Working Waterfront 101

Wherein the rate base gets a soaking while officials keep big-bubble toking

Wherein the rate base gets a soaking while officials keep big-bubble toking

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Correction: This was originally written 'off the cuff' as a comment on the Herald article hyperlinked below.  I mistakenly misremembered the Port's marketing consultant as the Gilbert Group.  Today's Seattle Times reminded me that it was actually the Herbert Group.  James D. Herbert has been charged with ramming a juvenile on an ATV with his Ford explorer, breaking his shoulder, then approaching the injured youth and threatening him with an ax.


20130325 10:44


Living wage jobs require water supply and treatment capacity.  These exist in abundance on the central waterfront, abandoned by G-P.  They include a large stainless steel pipe from Lake Whatcom capable of delivering more water than the rest of the city uses, an aerated treatment lagoon of about 26 acres, an outfall far from the nearshore habitat, and a state-approved mixing zone that will make compliance easy and spare the shoreline.  Shouldn't local officials try to recruit business with the prospect of surplus water and treatment capacity?  They can't.  The Port of Bellingham wants to turn the lagoon into a marina. Take away any part of the system - supply, treatment, discharge - and the entire asset becomes useless.  That's the official plan and considerable government art has been required to get there.
Initially, the port avoided discussing conversion of the G-P treatment lagoon into a marina by keeping it in the No Action Alternative.  Even the Department of Ecology said that wasn't right, but the tactic allowed the port to specifically refuse to consider questions about the treatment capacity of the lagoon.  The then city public works director questioned this repeatedly in the margins of his copy of the plan.  Much later, the city and port jointly adopted a new "Framework and Assumptions."  These prominently featured the marina but adroitly sidestepped renewed scoping for comments regarding conversion of the lagoon.  Port and city policy both intend to deprive the public of the value of these utilities, while saddling the rate base with the future cost of replacing what we already have - all without discussion.

Some say the G-P lagoon won't work.  I say, prove it.  No one will even consider trying. A past mayor even promised an independent scientific review that never happened.  The port misrepresents it as an industrial waste lagoon in need of remediation.  But it requires nothing to continue treating water.  That's already approved.  Even if it's not the best technological solution, it's still the best 'upland' site downgradient from almost all of Bellingham.  It's larger than Post Point where most sewage is pumped from this exact location at considerable public expense. Periodically, when the sewer is overloaded, raw sewage dumps into Whatcom Creek precisely at the northeast corner of the lagoon.  Why just dump it in the creek's mouth?

Because the port want's a marina.  To prevent dumping, the city - not the port - will spend tens of millions to build large concrete boxes to store excess sewage volumes.  These boxes eventually pump back into the system but will require physical maintenance after every use.  It's an expensive, maintenance-intensive alternative.  Neither the port nor city seem to care how much abuse they heap upon our water/sewer rate base.

Now, let's go to Hilo or Waikiki, or many places in the world that have already been ravaged by tsunamis.  They now have generous public shoreline open spaces that are key assets in their ability to attract tourism and business and support their economies.  We are overdue for our earthquake.  NOAA recently modeled tsunami effects for Bellingham Bay and found surprising areas of amplitude.  We are not immune.  Google tsunami bellingham.  Has our waterfront master planning taken this into account?

The Waterfront Group was the first consultant hired by the port.  They are indisputably the world's foremost authorities on waterfront redevelopment.  They wrote the books.  They said don't be stingy on the public waterfront.  A generous public waterfront will be more valuable than development in the long run.  They suggested First Nations be featured in place naming and public art.  The port drove them to the airport and threw their report in the trash. Then they hired Gilbert to recommend riding the real estate bubble with fine condominiums, foo-foo boutique retail shops and bay view office buildings.  Somehow, six Bellis Fairs might be absorbed without wrecking commercial property markets throughout town and consigning the future of downtown to the port.  Somehow eventual tsunami wreckage is better than a broad public shoreline.

In the wake of the burst bubble, public officials would be well advised to review the Waterfront Groups recommendations and start recruiting living wage jobs with the surplus water supply and treatment capacity we currently have at our disposal.  Even clean industry needs water and treatment.  Foreclosing our ability to host living wage jobs so the port can build a marina for forty to sixty foot yachts is not in the public's best interest.  Jigglepoking environmental review to secretly shift capacity replacement costs to the rate base is insult upon injury.

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About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Alex McLean

Mar 24, 2013

Thanks, Tip, for draining the bong-water out of the marina proposal.

When the Port first proposed marriage to the marina idea, I was opposed to it for purely cosmetic reasons; while the boats themselves are pretty enough, the razor-wire and security-coded gates that surround them invoke the aesthetic of a floating Gitmo. I struggled to understand how this gated community—which the Port clearly designated for the wealthier boat-owners and their larger moorage sizes—was going to be an overall asset that would enhance the value and experience of a redesigned waterfront. Many cities have marinas, of course, and they serve a valuable function. But plopping this one gob-smack in the middle of a 100-year design charrette for Bellingham’s future did not ring true for the healthier relationships that I’ve seen other cities form with their marinas which, by my rough analysis, goes something like this: “You are beloved, but you are also ugly and smell like dead fish. As you demand so much of my treasure, in the form of gobbling valuable ocean-front and abundant land-based parking infrastructure (every boat would need a parking space and nevermind trailers for the plebes with their dinky poor-person boats) I am now going to prudently request that you move out of the damn bedroom and, instead, set up a tent somewhere in the backyard.”

Seattle could have plopped its massive Shilshoe Marina right on its waterfront, but it didn’t. Instead, the cash cow—along with the razor-wire that restrains it—has been shunted well away from the downtown core.

So, cosmetics mattered to me.

Then I got educated about Low Impact Development, the fancy-pants phrase for “stormwater management.”

The Central Business District in Bellingham is one of the few remaining places where rainwater runoff from ubiquitous rooftops and roads is still being shunted directly into our City’s sewage treatment facility in Fairhaven. As this is a very expensive way to treat stormwater—essentially bringing vast amounts of dirty rainwater to nearly potable standards—it is not a rational long-term plan. The pipes that carry poo and the pipes that carry rain, in a modern system, should be separated and filtered using different techniques and technologies. One of the main motivations for this segregated design, as you point out in your article, is that a deluge of rain can, and sometimes does, blow through the system with such force that it flushes our turds straight into the bay. Even with a new $54 million upgrade to the treatment plant, this prospect will loom as long as the pipes remain attached or otherwise leaking (underground) into the system.

The alternative is to simply walk down the alleyways of downtown and literally kick the downspouts out of their connections. This solves one problem, but creates another. According to numerous studies of the Puget Sound marine ecosystem, the number one source of pollution to our water is not from industries, oil spills, illegal dumping, or even drunken sailors: The main cause of pollution entering our bays and inlets, especially near dense urban areas or places with a lot of agriculture, is simply our tainted stormwater runoff.

An ASB lagoon, such as the “marina” site, would be perfect as a solution. Or, as you mentioned elsewhere, it could capture the the runoff that currently dumps into our drinking water at Lake Whatcom. Or, as you mention in this article, it could be the third leg of the stool that could support living wage jobs—some sort of revitalized industry—on our waterfront.

This is what Georgia Pacific built the thing for in the first place, a notion that many of us forget quickly when the Port festoons that crater with renderings of Martini Bay filled with the flagships of wealthy patrons and their scantily-clad scion.

The existing value of this expensive hunk of infrastructure is held somewhere in it’s original purpose: It can temporarily store and treat water and keep toxic sludge from entering our bay no matter if the source is industrial or stormwater. The marina idea is cute. It is a logical extension of the gentrification of an industrial site to a millionaire’s playground. But it limits our options more than it expands them, and, especially when we consider the impacts or our recent economic spasms, this starts to matter to this community in the long-term analysis.

Yes, pin-wheeling spray nozzles, such as those typically used to aerate the sludge, will not exactly overwhelm the charming characteristics of a marina. But, if we follow Seattle’s example (on its Capital Hill Reservoir) we could always put a massive lid over the thing, dump some lawn and shrubs on it, and call it a park. That option, at least, is certifiably NEVER going to happen if sailboat masts are in the way.

Thanks again, Tip, for the education.


Tip Johnson

Mar 24, 2013

That could make a good article, Alex.


Michael Lilliquist

Mar 26, 2013

Good discussion of the Port’s marina plans. I would like to respond to a few things that Alex touched upon that are not directly related to the marina.

While it is true that formerly many downspouts in the downtown area were connected to the sewer system, Public Works department tells us that the vast majority of those have been identified and removed over the years. Instead, the run-off is now shunted into our municipal stormwater system.

The good news is that this means that downtown roofs no longer put a burden on our sewage treatment plant for “very expensive treatment” as Alex puts it. The bad news is that the stormwater is carried into the bay anyway, with very little in the way of treatment. Recently, the City has begun planning efforts for downtown rain gardens, to at least partially address this stormwater issue with more capture and on-site natural treatment. Meetings are currently underway with stakeholders downtown to discuss implementation.

Alex also touches on the problem of leaky pipes that allow water from rain-soaked ground to enter our sewer pipes. I know it seems odd, but sewage leaking out of pipes in not a problem, put groundwater leaking into pipes is a problem.

What this means is that the volume of sewage water reaching our treatment plant goes up after a heavy rain, and this puts a strain on the treatment plant. The current upgrades to the treatment plant do add to the volume capacity of the plant, but the upgrades are primarily intended to increase the capacity to handle a greater biological load. (In other words, the stuff in the water.)

Rather than expand the treatment plant even more to handle the unwanted infiltration, the City Council has instead insisted that we tackle in the inflow and infiltration problem directly. We are halfway through a pilot project to retrofit several blocks in the Sunnyland area, where infiltration from older pipes is a major issue. If it proves as successful as we hope, it will mean that retrofitting older pipes and connectors is a better and cheaper solution than building the “large concrete boxes” (in Alex’s words) to hold the extra volume. The price estimates for one major “wet weather facility” are in the $20 million range.

Which brings up back full circle to the original topic in Tip’s article. Is a marina the best use of a huge existing holding pond? Economic studies suggest that the market for a high-end marina has collapsed. I have asked the Port to reconsider it plans. So far, only one commissioner seems open to the idea.


Bill Black

Mar 26, 2013

  “Surplus water”....not so much.
  The problems with Lake Whatcom as a viable drinking water source are largely non-point. Likewise, the solutions are largely non-point. That is to say that there is no one problem and no one solution…...but water flow all the way to the northern most end of Lake Whatcom and down Whatcom Creek is an essential and notable part of the Lake Whatcom puzzle. Short circuiting the the water flow, which withdrawal at Geneva does, is not in our most essential best interests. Since the GP shutdown I’ve witnessed a much increased and regular flow past Bloedel Donovan Park and down Whatcom Creek…..and this is a “good thing”!
  The evidenced problems with Lake Whatcom are largely in the northern two shallow basins….each of which contain merely two percent of the total LW water volume. The northern basins are where our drinking water is withdrawn and where most human contact with the water occurs. Reinstating the GP withdrawal for any purpose whether for that crackpot power generation scheme floating around a couple years ago or any purpose at all would have a negative effect on Lake Whatcom water quality and should not be done.
  Information on certain aspects of Lake Whatcom hydrology, i.e. Middle Fork diversion volume and Whatcom Creek volume are strangely difficult to access. While one can easily reference Nooksack volume at numerous gauging stations Middle Fork/Mirror Lake and Whatcom Creek volumes are treated as if they are privileged information. It’s almost as if the powers-that-be are fostering ignorance
  I, as a ground level watershed witness and for one, am tired of losing ground in regards to Lake Whatcom. It’s high time that we started to do things right relative to Lake Whatcom and regarding flow down Whatcom Creek as just “surplus” water would be just one more error.


Alex McLean

Mar 29, 2013

Rain gardens are a LID strategy which use plants at street level to absorb, filter and detain stormwater before it becomes “point-source” pollution entering waterways or flooding a district. I love them and will be very curious to see how the addition of 36 of these things—largely replacing parking spaces—will change the look and feel of the CBD.

Another technique, which I’m absolutely batty about, is to install green roofs. By putting the vegetation on the rooftop, the detention and reduction of stormwater flow rates automatically reduces the infrastructure needs, and the potential pollution, of stormwater.

I would really like to see the Waterfront District adopt a by-law in its Development Regulations that goes beyond some squishy (and largely toothless) desire to be “green” or “kind-of like LEED.” The City of Seattle, at its Yesler Terrace redevelopment, is requiring that all rooftops be greenroof or solar CAPABLE. A similar code overlays a large university and housing complex in Burnaby, BC. The brilliance of this strategy is that it does not force developers to install the green infrastructure but, instead, simply ensures that the building is structurally and mechanically able to accept the addition of it.

This tactic, by my view, allows for flexibility on all fronts. Incentives could be parceled out—at any point in the future—to add panels or plants (or both) to the roofs depending on the goals of the City or, perhaps, the allure of contributing to PSE’s “Green Power” program or something like it. The requirement would make for a much better structure that would: a) last longer and be better built, b) allow for improvement no matter who ends up owning/managing it, and c) defray the cost of stormwater or energy systems which could otherwise tax the surrounding community which, in this case, could mean no dumb concrete boxes filled with rainwater or, potentially, expanding uses of the ASB/marina lagoon. Also, like the raingardens, a more interesting rooftop is far more cosmetically appealing for everyone who happens or see them. And, if I must wax hippie-poetic, let’s please consider where, exactly, the vaunted goal of installing community gardens will be located in this dense and expensive slice of real-estate. My vote is to site them atop the mandated parking structures that will eventually spackle this Waterfront District so that they could serve dual-duty as assets to both the residents and to stormwater reduction.

Without having the building designed to accept this sort of technology (which might also include the purple pipe option of capturing and using stormwater for toilets or irrigation) then you have built a structure that is trapped in 2013 forever. Very few of the buildings in the CBD can handle the addition of a green roof or solar PV panels for this reason and, with building technology and techniques rapidly changing nowadays, I think it behooves us well to remember we are in the 21st century and to force our new buildings to act their age.


Michael McAuley

Apr 06, 2013

Tip,  I appreciate your analysis and opinion.  Your discussion of the so called surplus water is interesting but lacks a basis in scientific realities.  The problem with the lake is not helped by flusing it with stoln Nooksack River water that is piped to a completely different watershed then dumped into another pipe completely bypassing that wateshed t then somehow get used in a factory on B’ham’s waterfront.  First, the water should stay in the Nooksack. Second dunping water through a pipe bypassing a semi-natural drainage in Whatcom Creek makes no ecological sense.  Third,  can only imagine one industry needing the kind of water GP used and that’s….a papermill or electric production, neither of which will have a future on the waterfront.  Today’s industrial production does not like to use water because an NPDES permit is a challenge to get and the waste water has to be basically clean which is why today’s new plants use very little water.  Help me if I’m wrong on this.  Regardless, I will not support flushing Lake Whatcom for any industrial purpose.  If it needs to circulate I propose a large solar array in the new park which can power a series of small turbines that can circulate the water in the lake. 

Mike McAuleu


Bill Black

Apr 07, 2013

  Naive me! I was hoping that the power generation idea using Nooksack (Middle Fork)/ Whatcom water would just go away…..but in fact a $750,000 “clean air” grant was recently accepted by the City of Bellingham to institute just that, i.e. generate electricity near old GP using the old GP waterline. All this is predicated on continuing the Middle Fork diversion.                                        The very recent decision by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle which is to the effect that not enough has been done to ensure that salmon are available to tribes (Boldt Decision) might have some interesting implications relative to the 20 miles of prime salmon spawning habitat above the Middle Fork diversion site which has been unreachable for the past 50 YEARS due to the design of the diversion dam which will not allow fish passage.
  Keep in mind also that Puget Sound Chinook (king salmon) are an endangered specie…...
  Although Martinez’s decision is calling for 1 BILLION dollars of fish friendly culverts to be installed “the ruling”, to quote the Seattle Times, “could eventually result in other court-ordered restoration work, according to tribal leaders and policy experts.”
  Given the uncertainty of the future of the diversion due to very legitimate (and federal court ordered)concerns regarding fish access to spawning habitat and water flow of the Nooksack, together with the LW northern basins’ flushing issues which will suffer by diminishing Whatcom Creek’s volume…..I’m left wondering how the acceptance of the $750,000 could have been wise.

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