What you need to know about boating permits for Lake Whatcom, Samish


lake whatcom boat inspections

As new owners Ken and Trish Larson watch, Scott Gilles, right, loads their boat on to a trailer at Bloedel Donovan Park after a tour around Lake Whatcom on Thursday March 8, 2012 in Bellingham. City official are beginning a mandatory inspection program for most boats on Lake Whatcom in 2013, to avoid introduction of harmful invasive species such as zebra mussels.


Boat inspections intended to stop the spread of harmful shellfish into Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish begin Saturday, April 27.

Bellingham and Whatcom County officials admit they don't know how smoothly the program will run this year. They hope to learn from mistakes and improve the program for next year.

The essential piece needed to make the system work, officials say, is cooperation from an educated boating public.

There may be a lot of trial and error getting through the inspections in 2013, but the goal is more long term than that. The city and county are developing a way to keep invasive plant and animal species out of the lakes, especially zebra and quagga mussels.

These small bivalves proliferate in a fresh water body, overwhelming the natural ecosystem and damaging or compromising drinking-water intakes. Once they're in a lake, there's little chance they can be eradicated. On top of the billions of dollars in damages these mussels have caused nationwide, municipalities have spent at least $1 billion so far to control the pests after they are established, according to a city memo.

Bellingham Public Works Assistant Director Jon Hutchings, county Assistant Public Works Director Chris Brueske and city Environmental Resources Manager Clare Fogelsong answered questions about the inspections.

What lakes require the inspection?

This year, the city and county will require inspections of boats that use Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish. Both lakes are sources of drinking water.

How much are the permits?

A season permit costs $50, and a day pass is $20 for all regulated boats on both lakes. The city exempts craft that can be hand-carried into the water, including canoes and kayaks. The county's rule is slightly different but exempts many of the same boats; only those that require a state license must get the permit sticker with the bold letters "AIS." Stickers are valid through the end of the year.

What are inspection hours?

Dawn to dusk seven days a week at Bloedel Donovan Park, through Oct. 1. Boaters also can call 360-778-7975 to arrange inspections and permit purchases at the city's Natural Resources Division offices, 2200 Nevada St.

What happens if I go to the lake before dawn or after dusk?

Gates will block the launch at Bloedel Donovan, but they won't be locked for the first few weeks of enforcement. Boats still would require an inspection before entering the lake. No other launches will be gated for now.

If I plan to take my boat on Lake Samish, what do I need to do?

The county won't inspect at Lake Samish this year, mainly because of technological difficulties setting up a payment system there. Take the boat to Bloedel Donovan first for an inspection, or arrange an inspection by calling 360-778-7975. Boaters using the one other public launch on Lake Whatcom, at South Bay, should follow the same steps.

Can I avoid the inspections by going to a different launch on Lake Whatcom?

Yes, but it's not legal. If a boat doesn't have a permit sticker, the boater can be fined at least $250 and up to $1,000. The boat will be escorted off the lake and can be held for as long as it takes to inspect the boat and decontaminate it, if necessary.

Will canoes and kayaks be inspected?

This is not required, but kayaks and canoes can be inspected to make sure they aren't carrying invasive species. Staff will be at some of the canoe- and kayak-launch sites during the summer, to give free inspections and educate boaters about minimizing the spread of unwanted plants and animals.

If I have an annual pass, does my boat have to be inspected each time I go to the lake?

As a boat leaves Lake Whatcom at the end of an outing, staff can tie a tether from the front of the boat to the trailer. If that seal remains intact at the next visit to the lake, no inspection is needed.

Are other animal or plant species included in the inspection?

Inspectors' first priority is zebra and quagga mussels, but they also will look for invasive shoreline plants, and non-native fish and shellfish.

Can boaters spot the invasive species themselves or otherwise make the inspectors' job easier?

Boat owners are encouraged to clean and drain their craft before leaving the lake, and allow the boat to dry between outings. The mussels and their microscopic larvae are hard to eliminate once they are on a boat. The city recommends allowing a boat to dry at least 30 days, then washing it with high-pressure hot water.

How will inspectors manage the line of boats at Bloedel Donovan?

Boaters will be separated into two lines as they approach the launch area. Those whose boats have a sealed tether from a previous lake trip will go to the line where no inspection is required. The rest of the boats will line up for inspections.

How long does the inspection take?

Inspections typically will take about five minutes for boats with a permit sticker, and 15 minutes for those that have not been previously inspected.

How long will the inspection lines be?

That's hard to say. City officials hope inspectors get in a rhythm and keep pace with the launching of boats from shore, so there is no backup caused specifically by the inspections. An overflow parking area will be available if lines do get long.

Will they be checking for life jackets, confiscating alcohol or calling police if they find something illegal?

No, but if inspectors see something that is a clear threat to the health or safety of the public, they will call law enforcement.

What is the fee money used for?

Fees collected in 2013 will be applied to the program in 2014. A rough estimate by the city has the fees covering about half the cost of the inspections.

Will there be a grace period when boaters get a warning before being fined?

Yes; the program puts education first, and enforcement is a last resort.

"This is a community program that protects citizens from bearing the future burden of living with these invasive species," Hutchings said. "To achieve that goal, education and willing community participation are more effective than enforcement."

Do people who live on Lake Whatcom or only use their boats on the lake need to have their boats inspected?

Boats with permits that launch only from private properties do not need to be inspected after the initial inspection required for the permit. Any boat that launches from Bloedel Donovan, whether or not it is used on other lakes, can skip the inspection only if the tether is intact.

If my boat fails the inspection, what happens?

Boats suspected of carrying harmful shellfish will be directed to a decontamination station at 2200 Nevada St. for a high-temperature pressure wash that should take about 30 minutes. Boaters will be charged $25.

More complicated boats, that could have invasive species hidden in internal ballast tanks or similar compartments, should be decontaminated at a marina at the owners' expense.

Boats found carrying only plant fragments will be wiped down at the launch site at no cost.

What forms of payment will be accepted for the permits?

Inspectors can accept checks or debit/credit cards but no cash.

Might the city extend inspections to Oct. 31, to match the end of fishing season?

That is an option, and a decision will come this summer.

What changes to the inspections could come in 2014?

County and city officials will consider requiring inspections of canoes and kayaks, changing the permit fee, and offering different inspection hours at Bloedel Donovan. The county is considering expanding the program to include all Whatcom lakes in 2015. County officials also want to streamline inspections, possibly with self-inspections through online training for boaters.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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