BELLINGHAM - It's official: Boats entering Lake Whatcom at Bloedel Donovan Park will be required to have inspection stickers by the first day of this year's boating season, April 27.
The inspection system is intended to keep boaters from inadvertently transplanting non-native species into the lake, which is Bellingham's source of drinking water.
The worst potential invaders are zebra and quagga mussels, which are native to Eastern Europe but have found their way into a number of U.S. lakes and rivers in recent years. The bivalves can form solid masses that foul docks, shorelines and boats, as well as water system intakes.
Jon Hutchings, assistant public works director, advised boaters to pay for their inspection stickers in advance, to speed up the process on the opening weekend of boating season. An online payment system will be up and running by April 1, he said.
Boaters who take advantage of the online system will still need a boat inspection before launch, but the process will go faster if most people have paid in advance, Hutchings said. But he still advised boaters to expect delays the first few days.
The cost of inspection stickers will be determined soon. City officials want to charge $50 for an annual pass and $20 for a one-day permit, but some Whatcom County Council members have expressed misgivings about fees that steep.
For their part, Mayor Kelli Linville and City Council members are resisting making the fees any lower, because they hope the fees will be enough to cover all or most of the cost of the inspection program, roughly estimated at $140,000 a year.
Hutchings said he hopes the city and county can get together on fees, so there is a unified inspection and fee system all around the lake. Although most boats launch at the city's Bloedel Donovan Park, most of the lake shore is outside city limits.
Hutchings said there's a good chance that inspection fee revenue will fall short of what is needed to support the program.
"We're confident we can raise half the money through the fees," he said.
City and county officials will have a better handle on costs by the end of the boating season, he added.
For this year at least, the fees apply only to larger boats. Hand-carried watercraft such as canoes and kayaks are still subject to inspections, and their operators could be fined if they are found to be introducing non-native species into the lake.
Violators are subject to a civil penalty of $250 to $1,000.