Bellingham, Lake Whatcom water district set to OK new sewer deal

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 17, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The city and Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District appear ready to sign a new 20-year wastewater treatment agreement that recognizes limits to residential growth around the lake.

Lake Whatcom is the drinking water source for the city of Bellingham and for approximately 4,000 households in Geneva, Sudden Valley and other areas near the lake. In recent years, the district, the city and Whatcom County have been scrambling to reduce the flow of polluting phosphorus carried into the lake when rain falls on developed areas.

The district gets both drinking water and sewage treatment from the city. Under the existing agreement, the district may send up to 3,200 gallons of wastewater per minute into the city's system. Assistant City Public Works Director Eric Johnston said the district's actual wastewater output is typically far less than that, but the relatively high maximum limit was in place to accommodate earlier forecasts for population growth in the district.

Now, both the city and the district agree that the lakeside communities won't grow enough in 20 years to get anywhere near that maximum, said Patrick Sorensen, the district's general manager. That's partly because the city has been spending millions on acquiring undeveloped property in the district's service area to forestall development.

The new deal drawn up for approval of City Council and water district commissioners will set a new maximum of 2,400 gallons per minute for the district. Sorensen said that should be enough to accommodate the anticipated levels of homebuilding on existing lots.

"We have enough capacity to take care of existing infill," Sorensen said. "We don't anticipate new large-scale development. ... We're all much more conscientious about the impact of phosphorus in the lake."

The phosphorus stimulates growth of algae and bacteria that rob the lake water of dissolved oxygen, which is bad for fish. The algae also can build up in the city's drinking water treatment system and reduce its output.

The new deal means that the city need not provide sewer plant capacity to cover the higher maximum, and the district's customers need not pay for it. Sorensen said the new agreement also will make it easier for the city and the district to keep track of costs, making sure that the district's customers pay enough to cover the city's costs in providing the service.

"It won't increase your bill," Sorensen said. "I wish I could say it would lower your bill."

Bellingham's Johnston said the agreement also contains provisions that provide the district and its customers with incentives to continue to conserve water, and thereby reduce their wastewater outflow. If the average volume of wastewater per district household rises above a specified amount, the city can impose a surcharge that district water and sewer customers would have to pay.

That same provision encourages the district to take steps to reduce the amount of stormwater that leaks into sewer lines. That kind of leakage is a problem for both the city and the district, because it increases the volume of wastewater that must be processed in the city's sewage plant during rainy spells.

Sorensen said water district commissioners have received regular updates as the deal with the city took shape, and final approval is likely. Assuming that the commissioners do approve, the City Council is scheduled to take a vote on the measure on Feb. 24. Council members appeared favorably disposed to the agreement when it was presented in draft form at their Feb. 10 meeting.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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