BELLINGHAM - Cleaning up Lake Whatcom will take decades, millions - maybe hundreds of millions - of dollars, and a door-to-door effort to reduce polluted runoff.
But city and Whatcom County officials already have a running start, and they believe this complex water-pollution problem will be solved.
They expect at least to get most of the way to a solution after hearing a staff report Thursday, March 28, on progress already made to reduce the amount of phosphorus spilling into the lake from storm runoff.
Excessive phosphorus in Lake Whatcom feeds algae blooms that take oxygen out of the water after the algae die. Low oxygen levels have put the lake on a state list of polluted waters.
Everyone on city water felt the effects of too much algae in the lake in the summer of 2009. The city's water capacity was reduced by algae-clogged treatment filters, and residents were put on a mandatory six-day outdoor watering ban.
Problems at the treatment plant haven't been as severe since that especially warm, dry summer, but the continuous stream of phosphorus into the lake will only worsen the algae problem, said Jon Hutchings, Bellingham's assistant public works director.
"Once it starts, it's difficult if not impossible to control," Hutchings said of the algae.
The lake is headed in that direction, Hutchings said. The goal is to stop it before it goes too far.
In a much-anticipated report the Department of Ecology released in February, the state agency established the goal that must be met through the combined effort of the city, the county, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, and the Sudden Valley Community Association. The amount of phosphorus draining into the lake from developed lots must be reduced by 87 percent.
Ecology's report may be new, but its message has been known for almost 20 years. Algae has been a documented nuisance in the lake at least since 1996.
The city accelerated efforts to reduce phosphorus pollution around 2002 and has achieved 40 percent of the reduction required by Ecology.
Large stormwater projects that contain flood-prone creeks and filter runoff from dozens or hundreds of developed acres have done much of the work. More of these should get the city to 80 percent of the final goal, Hutchings said.
The other 20 percent will be a challenge. Stormwater from homes along the edge of the lake and in Sudden Valley can't be contained by these regional projects. It's a matter of going home by home and convincing the owners of thousands of properties to make the improvements themselves.
A city-run pilot homeowner incentive program funded mainly by Ecology has had modest success so far. City engineering technician Eli Mackiewicz has contacted more than 350 homeowners on the watershed. Forty of them have completed work that has reduced phosphorus pollution by anywhere from 10 to 96 percent.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Mackiewicz said.
Ecology gave the jurisdictions around Lake Whatcom 50 years to get the job done.
"We can do better than that," Hutchings said. It's possible to get the phosphorus down to acceptable levels in 15 or 20 years, he said.
City council member Gene Knutson pressed Hutchings on that prediction.
"I'm not going to get pinned down on that question," Hutchings said. "I'm confident we can continue the kind of trajectory we've seen over the last five or 10 years."
The optimism felt at Thursday night's meeting contrasted with the tone of a Tuesday meeting of the county Natural Resources Committee. County council member Sam Crawford said then that the goal seemed unreachable, even with a 50-year timeline.
"Impossible might be too strong of a word, but highly impractical," Crawford said. "If we want to get to the point Ecology wants us to get to, we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars."
After Thursday's meeting, county council member Bill Knutzen, who is typically skeptical of policies that create new costs for builders, said officials could and should see the cleanup through.
"It will require some investment on (builders') part," Knutzen said in an interview. "The projects that continue to happen are going to be held to stricter standards.
"It's going to be expensive, let's face it," Knutzen said, "but if we just continue to deal with it on a year-by-year basis, and continue to make progress - I don't know if we can match what Ecology is demanding, but certainly in 50 years like they're talking about, I think we can get close."