Elected officials must establish policies that protect water sources

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 23, 2013 

Through my work, I am exposed every day to global water concerns and initiatives. There is a tremendous amount of focus and energy on a global scale concerning diminishing water resources and increasing problems with contamination of available water resources.

I have worked in the Powder River region to try to figure out cost-effective methods to deal with the wastewater from coal bed methane production. There are no simple or cheap solutions for cleaning the wastewater from this purportedly cheap gas source.

In Nebraska I have seen an agricultural research facility trying to figure out a cost-effective way to reduce the rapidly escalating levels of nitrates in their groundwater resulting from a distant feedlot's groundwater plume.

In Whatcom County, we are not immune to these global forces. Well documented declines in snow pack and glacial retreat require us to look carefully at water use and plan for the future. Various computer models predict that precipitation will increase in our area, but due to diminishing snow packs and glacial decline summertime flows in the Nooksack will decrease by as much as 40 percent by 2060.

Coupled with these declines are new industrial proposals for rural areas that will draw large quantities of water from aquifers and rivers, while also producing polluting waste streams back into the environment.

Slaughter houses are one of the most notorious causes of water pollution. Waste streams with high organic and nutrient loads cause aquifers and surface water sources of fresh water to contain contaminants that then require extensive and expensive water treatment processes to return the water to acceptable standards for human consumption.

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal terminal will not only take significant freshwater during the summer from the Nooksack to water the coal piles (water that cannot be recycled due to evaporation), but will also result in significant waste streams due to uncontainable higher precipitation rates during the winter. Similar coal piles adjacent to marine areas with lower precipitation rates than we have, have been shown to release high levels of aluminum, beryllium and copper, all toxic to marine organisms.

Related to the declines in snow pack and summer time flows is rising sea level. Countries all over the world are experiencing and planning for rising sea levels. When the oceans rise, estuaries become increasingly brackish. So do coastal aquifers -- our underground storage supplies of fresh water. Ferndale is experiencing this right now, and will see increasingly expensive treatment required as time goes on.

Surface water sources are at risk as well. Lake Whatcom is experiencing natural eutrophication, the slow build-up of nutrients and algae in the lake. Eutrophication, though a natural process, spells trouble for us. The process is being accelerated by the inflow to the lake of nutrients from human sources, which accelerate algae growth. We have already seen the results in higher treatment costs and summertime rationing because the treatment plant cannot keep up with the treatment demands of summertime algae growth. Some suggest that increasing flows will eliminate this problem, but how with available water declining?

Aggravating this problem is that North America will experience a 41 percent increase in population by 2050, by United Nations estimates. It is realistic to assume Whatcom County will experience population increase during this period, maybe significant as people leave areas with more severe water shortages. This will put additional stress on available water resources.

Reducing fresh water supplies due to diminishing snow pack, increased industrial demand of water using wasteful methods, increasing draw for essential agriculture, and pollution sources from human activities, in combination result in significant water problems ahead. Our elected leaders should be thinking about, and planning, for how to capture excess wintertime flows to make up for the diminishing summertime flows. They should be looking carefully at proposed industrial projects in Whatcom County, particularly rural areas, and not permit activities that diminish available resources, don't recycle water, or produce waste streams that will diminish the quality of available water resources. It is up to the citizenry of Whatcom County to become educated about these issues and hold our elected officials to policies that protect our water.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Humphrey Blackburn lives in Custer and owns a business that manufactures and distributes proprietary water treatment systems for small communities, agriculture and industry throughout the United States and in more than 20 countries, mostly in the developing world.

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