BELLINGHAM - The Washington Department of Ecology is renewing its push for progress on the daunting task of making huge cuts in polluted runoff into Lake Whatcom from developed areas.
On Monday, Feb. 25, the state agency issued a new report on the lake's phosphorus pollution woes that will mandate the city and Whatcom County to come up with a timeline for taking steps to achieve pollution control goals, and a plan to pay for it.
Excessive phosphorus runoff is stimulating excessive algae growth, setting off a chain reaction that triggers more bacteria and robs the lake of dissolved oxygen. That harms fish populations while making algae concentrations high enough to slow down the city's water filtration system during the worst periods.
Steve Hood, an engineer in Ecology's Bellingham office, said the state expects to give the city and county five years to develop that plan, which will be neither cheap nor simple: Getting the lake back to natural conditions will mean controlling rainfall runoff at an extremely high level, almost as if the developed area had not been developed at all.
"The lake would have healthy levels of algae and oxygen if 87 percent of the developed area around the lake stored water during rainstorms, filtered water through the soil, and evaporated water as if it was covered by forest," an Ecology press release said.
About 12 percent of the lake's 36,000-acre watershed is developed.
The daunting target for lake pollution cleanup is not new. Ecology officials have been talking about the need for massive cuts in rainfall runoff into Lake Whatcom for the last few years. But now, the state agency is setting some deadlines.
Failure to develop a long-range action plan, and failure to implement it once it is complete in 2018, could subject the city and the county to enforcement actions that could mean payment of hefty fines to the state.
Hood said he doesn't expect things to get to that point, because city and county officials, as well as their constituents, recognize that phosphorus pollution is a threat to the drinking water supply for 100,000 people.
City Council members Cathy Lehman and Seth Fleetwood, as well as County Council member Carl Weimer, expressed enthusiasm. They all hope that the state's prodding will speed the pace of efforts to reverse decades of phosphorus runoff.
But elsewhere, applause was muted at best. County Council member Sam Crawford said he continues to be skeptical about the seriousness of the problem and the need to take expensive corrective steps that put a burden on property owners.
"The assumption that development in and of itself is the most contributing cause of a phosphorus problem - I'm a little skeptical." Crawford said.
He believes that some of the lake's pollution may come from natural sources. As Crawford sees it, the Ecology report doesn't give this enough attention and places the burden on people who live in the watershed.
"It's a one-size-fits-all solution when we talk about Lake Whatcom, and it's always to put any issue regarding the lake on the backs of property owners," Crawford said.
City officials directly involved with lake issues found no immediate fault with Ecology's mandates. Although they were clearly trying to be diplomatic, they did express some concern that Ecology's planning requirements could get in the way of rapid progress on projects that will actually curb runoff pollution.
"It is surprising that the language (of Ecology's report) is so planning-centric," said Clare Fogelsong, environmental resources manager at the city's Public Works Department.
Bill Reilly, city stormwater utility manager, said the city is already undertaking projects that will reduce polluted runoff.
"We're going to do our best to have the accomplishments continue as we go through the planning process," Reilly said.
In the next two years, Reilly said, the city will be installing runoff-reducing improvements at Bloedel-Donovan Park and on city rights of way near the north end of the lake. The two projects total about $1 million in costs, with Department of Ecology grants covering most of that.
Besides designing and building those kinds of projects, Reilly said there must be an ongoing effort to get owners of existing homes and other buildings to do their part to control their own runoff.
PUBLIC COMMENT SOUGHT
The first draft of the Washington Department of Ecology's latest report on Lake Whatcom pollution will get 90 days of public review before it takes effect, mandating local governments to develop long-term strategies to curb phosphorus pollution from developed areas.
Submit comments to Steve Hood, Ecology engineer: email@example.com
Copies can be reviewed at the Bellingham Public Library or Ecology's Bellingham office at 1440 10th St., Suite 102.
Online: Click here.