Every citizen of Whatcom County acknowledges the importance of water; from drinking it, irrigating crops, harvesting shellfish, providing animal and fishery habitat and for recreation. Along with these pressures on water come community perspectives on how the different programs and resources within the county should address the issues surrounding our water capacity, quantity, quality, location and access.
Whatcom County has many different programs addressing water resources. The Health Department, Planning Department and Public Works all play a role. It is important that the county consolidates water resource programs and projects to a manageable list. Clearly articulating Whatcom County's water resource efforts and coordinating each department's role avoids duplication while striving to accomplish the overall goal. That is ensuring the right of the residents of Whatcom County to continue to use water for their individual purposes while acknowledging the importance of water for the overall health and vibrancy of our community and economy.
In order to coordinate the county's roles and responsibilities in water planning the county will communicate those responsibilities. This allows for important budget decisions to be made. Over the last couple of months the county administration, based on a resolution passed by the Whatcom County Council, has been evaluating existing water resource programs to make recommendations and determine the costs of expansion or reduction of those programs and how they could be funded.
First, we are looking at high-level goals and requirements of the water resource programs, as follows:
Stormwater services, including capital financing, staff, maintenance/operation, and development review with primary focus on Lake Whatcom and urban areas of the county covered by National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or NPDES permits;
Rural and urban water quality programs in coastal drainages with a focus on public health concerns of fecal coliform bacteria in Whatcom County's river, creeks, and marine waters;
Provision of good scientific information for public discussion surrounding water quantity and availability issues in Whatcom County;
Protection of life and safety of the county's citizens by addressing issues surrounding flood preparedness, capital planning and delivery of river and flood projects.
Whatcom County will continue, and potentially, expand its existing programs in these priority areas:
To increase the community's focus on public health concerns regarding water quality in Whatcom County's rivers, creeks, and marine waters the county will enhance the Pollution Identification Control program by integrating Public Works, Health and Planning departments. This will mean the county will provide stable funding sources and continue to look for grant opportunities. This program will focus on scientific information based on the results of water quality monitoring and the use of the Conservation Program on Agriculture Lands. That program allows flexibility in the standard critical area buffers for low-impact, ongoing agriculture operations that would include fencing and other best-management practices. Because these farming operations have important cultural, economic and historical value in Whatcom County, the county is striving to strike a balance between farming operations and natural resource conservation and water quality protection.
It is important to gather the scientific information and data necessary to better understand the interaction between groundwater and surface water, and demand for water now and in the future. The county will move forward with a three-pronged approach that includes updating the Coordinated Water System Plan to address future needs for public water systems (municipal, water districts and associations, and other public water systems); quantifying current and future needs for other out-of-stream users (farmers, industry, rural exempt well users, etc.); commencing production of groundwater modeling and assessments. This effort helps to determine whether withdrawing groundwater in areas of the county would impact different streams and their water flow for fish habitat and other purposes. This can be done in individual watersheds and then could be expanded to other areas.
Allocate funding within available resources to allow for a stable capital improvement program (public facility maintenance and certain private residential retrofits) aimed at reducing phosphorus inputs into the lake and meeting the total maximum daily limit goals. As Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham and other partners in this effort accomplish storm water projects it is important to recognize all the achievements to date. Continuing to deliver water quality projects aimed at reducing phosphorus reductions to the lake (retrofitting existing public facilities) benefits everyone in the community.
State and federal laws require attention, recognition and administration of this important storm water program. This program requires the county to train and prepare staff for a greater stormwater burden, including additional development reviews and ongoing maintenance and operation. There will be greater inspection and maintenance requirements of the public stormwater facilities and additional road maintenance staffing will be needed to accomplish this. Funding needs to be allocated to implement this program.
The county will continue to maintain protection of life and safety of the community by delivering river and flood protection projects and emergency preparedness. The county will also continue to look for ways to integrate more effective habitat projects (water quality improvements) with flood projects, which will benefit our natural resources and may ease some regulatory hurdles other flood projects have.
In the next couple of months the county administration will be recommending a fiscally responsible budget to the County Council on water resource programs. For the community to find a path forward on these issues it is important to follow two main principles -- public involvement and open decision-making. If we, as a community, follow these principles in a fiscally responsible manner, we can preserve our valuable water resource for current and future generations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tyler Schroeder, is the special projects manager to the county executive. He can be contacted at 360-676-6717. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.