As a state legislator for nearly two decades, I spent a significant amount of time working on complex water issues. It was rare that there was ever a single solution that could solve two problems at once.
Today, however, there is a bill in front of the state Legislature that could provide both economic development and environmental benefits. Aquatic invasive species are threatening our waterways and have the potential to cost Washington state taxpayers their access to clean water and millions of dollars in lost revenue by causing irreparable harm to our lakes, rivers and the Salish Sea. The risk grows greater every day, and without action this legislative session, we fall further behind in our ability to protect our waterways.
From an economic development perspective, Washington is reliant upon readily available and inexpensive hydro power. This abundance of renewable energy has fostered a favorable economic environment that is beneficial to industry and high-tech companies alike. Further, the hydroelectric industry has allowed for an expansive irrigation system that allows Whatcom County to be a national leader in berry production and the rest of the state in apple orchards, hops production, wheat farming and an increasingly emerging wine industry. An aquatic invasive species infestation could plug hydro turbines and block irrigation pipes, which would greatly compromise our technological and agricultural economy.
Lakes at risk
Environmentally, aquatic invasive species could greatly imperil lakes like Lake Whatcom, the primary source of drinking water for more than 100,000 people in Whatcom County, and damage the Columbia River and related reservoirs in the region. Aquatic invasive species have the potential to foul fisheries, devastate salmon runs and destroy the food chain within ecosystems.
Video: Invasive zebra and quagga mussels a threat nationwide
And, unfortunately, it has the potential to get much worse. Once invasive species arrive they are nearly impossible to eradicate, as witnessed by infestations in the Great Lakes Region and in the desert Southwest at Lake Mead.
$100 million Potential annual cost to control infestation of zebra and quagga mussels in Washington state.
To address the issue, in 2015, the state Legislature called for a stakeholder group of members from the boating community, Public Utility Districts, irrigators and shipping industry, among others, to prepare long-term funding options. Those recommendations are now before both the Legislature in House Bill 1429 and the Senate in Bill 5303.
The stakeholder group focused primarily on preventing an infestation of zebra and quagga mussels. An infestation could cost the state $100 million annually to control.
Considering the challenge of controlling an infestation, the priority is on prevention. The group suggested using a combination of the state general fund, user fees and partnerships. The goal is to increase funding to $3.8 million a biennium over six years. Supporters hope to expand watercraft inspections, mandatory check stations, water sampling and inspections in the state’s water bodies.
This would increase mandatory check stations from 50 to 250, and boost the number of watercraft inspections from 14,200 a year to 50,000 a year. Currently, the city of Bellingham administers a mandatory watercraft inspection program at two major lakes in Whatcom County: Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish. The program operates four ramp-based check stations and two roving stations. In 2016, recreational boaters partially funded the program by purchasing 5,680 permits. Over 9,500 boat inspections were conducted in 2016 to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species and to educate boaters to clean, drain and dry their boats. One recommendation in the legislation is to fund local efforts through a grant program that could support programs like the one we have at Lake Whatcom.
Throughout my career I have advocated for long-term, sensible solutions. Strengthening the minimal statewide aquatic invasive species prevention framework that we currently have is clearly in all of our best interests, whether a wheat farmer in Eastern Washington, boater on our many lakes and rivers, or a businessperson in Seattle. Please join me in supporting this important legislation.
This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about city issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.