Seriously, why is this even an issue? Lake Whatcom is the largest source of potable water in Whatcom County, supplying drinking water to approximately 50% of county residents. Additionally, the Lake Whatcom watershed is a Critical Area of high ecological importance and sensitivity. It contains wetlands, critical aquifer recharge areas, and protected fish and wildlife species and habitat. The lake is also a Shoreline of Statewide Significance under the Shoreline Management Act as well as the county and city SMP. The health of Lake Whatcom is directly tied to the economic vitality and well-being of our community.
Lake Whatcom has increasingly degraded over time, and does not meet state water quality standards for several uses, including drinking water. In 1998, the lake was listed as an impaired water body under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA.) The city and county are required to restore the lake’s water quality, a challenge that has proved both difficult and expensive.
In 2008, the Department of Ecology completed a Water Quality Study that determined phosphorus was the primary source of lake degradation. Phosphorus loading is the result of residential development. Impervious surfaces associated with development, such as roofs, driveways, and lawns, interrupt the absorption and filtration provided by forested land, instead sending phosphorus-laden stormwater run-off into the lake.
This year’s Lake Whatcom Monitoring Program annual report, released by Dr. Robin Matthews, Director of the Institute for Watershed Studies at Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University, reflected a dire situation. Oxygen levels are at their lowest recorded levels, and phosphorus levels are at their highest recorded levels, especially in the densely developed northern portions of the lake. According to the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE,) this new data creates increased urgency in addressing the lake’s water quality problems.
The consequences of decreased water quality were experienced in the summer of 2009. The concentration of cyanobacteria in the lake was so high that algae obstructed Bellingham’s water filtration systems. A high volume of lake water was needed to flush out the algae. As a result, water usage restrictions were imposed on city residents. In other words, water quality problems are connected to water quantity problems.
To meet water quality standards, as required under federal and state law, the city and county must modify existing and future development to function as if the watershed were still in a fully forested condition. Although a number of policies, programs, and plans have been enacted by local governments to address water quality, both jurisdictions continue to permit watershed development and/or redevelopment, and each year, less pervious surface remains. On-going and increased water quality degradation has not been halted. In light of this fact, proper management of existing watershed forested land is crucial.
Development is indisputably the primary source of water quality degradation in the Lake Whatcom watershed. However, it has recently become evident that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forestry practices contribute to water quality degradation to a greater extent than previously expected. A large portion of Lake Whatcom is forested and governed by DNR forestry practices.
In 1999, the DNR was given ten years to study, monitor, and review forestry practice impacts on water quality to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. DNR failed to complete one single study to verify that its forestry practices improved, or even maintained, water quality within forested watersheds. DNR failed to review the level of private compliance with required forestry practices. Construction and maintenance of logging roads were not monitored, although compacted logging roads can be a significant source of impervious surface. Not surprisingly, DNR forestry practices diminished water quality, increased landslides, sediment deposits, and phosphorus loading, and increased the risk of harm to humans, wildlife species, and forest habitat.
This is discussed in the DOE “2009 Clean Water Act Assurances Review” at
http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/nonpoint/ForestPractices/CWAassurances-FinalRevPaper071509-W97.pdf. Despite these concerns, DOE is allowing DNR forestry practices to continue under new guidelines that may be excused for a variety of reasons, with the likely result that degradation of water quality will continue.
The county and city proposal to restore water quality standards does not meaningfully address DNR forestry practices. Their stated goal is to “monitor forestry activities in the watershed to ensure that any adverse water quality impacts are minimized.” While the city and county point to their Critical Area Ordinances in support of this goal, the CAO’s are not applicable within forested watershed land managed by the DNR. A further goal, to review reports of DNR activities and advocate for strict DOE enforcement of water quality, relies upon the action of state agencies. Clearly, obtaining jurisdiction over forested watershed land would be a more effective approach.
A pro-active, extremely cost effective solution for protecting Lake Whatcom exists. The county has the opportunity to acquire more than 8,000 acres of forested land, which represents over 25% of the Lake Whatcom watershed. This would occur through a reconveyance of land currently under DNR jurisdiction. Under state law, the reconveyed land must be used as a public park. The county plans to manage the land as a low-impact park, and to allow this land to eventually return to old growth forest. Old growth forest is the ultimate form of protection for water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and public safety.
While the County Council authorized a large portion of the cost for the Lake Whatcom Forest Preserve, (sometimes referred to as the “Reconveyance,”) and the City Council issued a resolution in support of the reconveyance, it remains unclear if the county will ultimately approve this action. Election results for the county executive and county council races will likely determine the fate of the Forest Preserve, along with public input.
Concerns raised regarding the cost of the Forest Preserve fail to consider the scientifically established link between water quality and fully forested land, the years we have already been struggling for solutions and our lack of meaningful progress, the vital importance of the lake for our entire community, or the significantly higher cost of any alternative action. The cost of the reconveyance, and of on-going park maintenance, must be viewed in the larger context of the city and county’s obligation to restore water quality under the federal Clean Water Act. The Forest Preserve is an incredible bargain that we can not afford to lose.
Yes, the Forest Preserve will create new trails and parking lots in the watershed, but it will result in a net reduction of impervious surface by reducing current or future logging roads. The reconveyance will reduce the risk of landslide within residential areas of the watershed, decreasing related water quality and health risks. While there have been questions regarding county management, the alternative is the known mismanagement of DNR. The small reduction in logging that will result is more than offset by the benefit of protecting potable water for half of the county’s residents.
Let us also not forget the additional benefits of the Forest Preserve. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of reestablishing a large tract of old growth forest at a time when this habitat is rapidly disappearing. A large number of plants and wildlife species, such as the marbled murrelet and the spotted owl, depend on old growth forest for survival. Northwest old growth forests have been determined to produce a disproportionately high amount of fresh oxygen and to mitigate climate change. Old growth forest reduces the water temperature in our streams, aiding survival of fish species. The reconveyance provides wonderful recreational opportunities, particularly for those seeking a more rugged and natural experience and refuge from our increasingly crowded urban parks.
Perhaps the Forest Preserve is not a perfect solution to some, but it is surely more perfect than any other solution to date.