Whatcom County's water bill: $1.8M to fight pollution

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 16, 2014 

Lake Whatcom

A foggy morning on Lake Whatcom, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws has proposed increasing the county's contribution to phosphorus-removal programs on the lake to $900,000 a year. The state Department of Ecology will son require the agencies to substantially reduce phosphorus levels in the lake.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Fixing Whatcom County's many water-related problems is going to cost more than $1 million a year, the County Council learned on Tuesday, July 15.

The council made water a main focus of the 2015-16 budget in March, when it unanimously adopted a wide-ranging water action plan. The plan's long list of goals can be reduced to two: clean up the county's water bodies, and figure out how to make water available to all who need it.

County Executive Jack Louws' staff introduced a proposal for how to implement the plan, along with an estimate of the cost, to five members of the council at Tuesday's surface water work session. Sam Crawford and Carl Weimer, the water action plan's author, were absent.

The bottom line: The county will spend $1.8 million more in 2015, with most of it going to improve stormwater treatment, reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Whatcom, and protect shellfish beds from unhealthy levels of fecal bacteria.

A small portion of the $1.8 million for 2015 is for start-up costs including new software and equipment. Most of it will need to be spent every year, with the ongoing cost likely to rise.

Water quantity, the subject of much discussion among farmers, tribes and rural landowners this year, would get only a small fraction of the total - about $40,000 for a part-time staff person - under the proposal introduced Tuesday.

Louws proposed spending some of the $12 million held in reserve in the county flood fund to pay for the additional water programs. He said the programs could be supported by reducing the fund balance to about $5 million by 2018 or 2019. A property tax on all county residents generates about $3.3 million a year for the flood fund. No new taxes are proposed in the near term.

For the expanded water program, the county would hire at least the equivalent of 91/2 full-time employees to inspect stormwater systems, crunch the data on water-quality monitoring, and enforce rules on people who live along the streams that flow into shellfish areas.

Enforcement, however, is not always the best way to stop landowners from allowing their animals to leave their waste in streams, or to keep their septic systems in good working order. County administration and council want to make sure people living along streams are aware that special rules apply to them.

"Does county government think people will learn about these rules somehow on their own or from someone else?" Weimer asked July 5 on his water-issues blog. "I would hate to think how my neighbors would react if all of a sudden the county began to talk about enforcing these rules before people were even told they exist and apply to them. Lots of pitchforks in this neighborhood, and I have no doubt they will come out if the county tries to jump the gun on enforcement."

Louws proposed increasing the county's contribution to phosphorus-removal programs on Lake Whatcom to match the amount Bellingham spends. The increase would be $300,000 per year, to $900,000.

Substantially reducing phosphorus in the lake will soon be required by the state Department of Ecology.

Most of the new funding would go toward stricter federal and state requirements for stormwater treatment. That alone will cost $1.1 million.

The Public Works Department would hire four new inspectors, who will be required to keep 2,700 catch basins, 4,000 culverts and more than 100 miles of ditches flowing properly.

The more stringent stormwater rules could be expanded to include more of the county in a few years, said Roland Middleton, the county's special projects manager. For now, the rules are limited to the more densely populated parts of the county, including Birch Bay and Sudden Valley.

Tuesday's meeting was a first pass at how to execute the water action plan, and how much it will cost. The council will continue to take public comments on the plan until August. Weimer said he has already compiled 75 pages of comments.

Council expects to discuss the plan and costs again on Aug. 5.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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