Extension likely for small-lot moratorium on Lake Whatcom


BELLINGHAM - The moratorium on small home lots around Lake Whatcom is almost certain to be extended yet again Tuesday, July 9, as Whatcom County Council members mull over an aggressive program intended to reduce pollution in the lake.

The moratorium on property divisions creating lots smaller than five acres has been in place since 2005, to stall residential growth in the lake's watershed and prevent further increases in polluted runoff into the lake.

Council is approaching a vote on strict rules for pollution control on future lots requiring them to be "phosphorus neutral," meaning the amount of phosphorus runoff would be no more than what would come from the same area of forest.

The state Department of Ecology released a report in February requiring the county and other jurisdictions around the lake to reduce phosphorus from developed lots by 87 percent. Excessive phosphorus runoff stimulates excessive algae growth, setting off a chain reaction that triggers more bacteria and robs the lake of dissolved oxygen. That harms fish while making algae concentrations high enough to slow down the city's water filtration system during the worst periods.

Even the smallest lots would require installation of stormwater controls for construction on a footprint larger than 500 square feet. The county estimates that stormwater systems for small lots would cost $7,000 to $20,000.

Council members considered the pollution controls on June 18 but stopped short of a vote. Members of the public who defend development or property rights said the cost for stormwater controls on small lots would be at least $25,000.

Some council members said future homeowners shouldn't bear all of the responsibility for pollution in the lake. Another source of phosphorus is a system of pipes and channels that diverts water from the middle fork Nooksack River to the lake, to augment Bellingham's water supply. Jon Hutchings, the city's assistant director of public works, acknowledged June 18 that a significant amount of phosphorus comes from the diversion, but it's still roughly 10 percent of the total from a fully developed Lake Whatcom basin.

Council will hold a public hearing on the moratorium at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave. The council's Natural Resources Committee will discuss the stricter pollution control rules at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, also at the courthouse. The rules aren't yet scheduled to go back to the full council.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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