Lake Whatcom pollution report still imposes strict cleanup requirement

A foggy morning on Lake Whatcom, Jan. 2, 2013.
A foggy morning on Lake Whatcom, Jan. 2, 2013. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The state soon will require strict controls on runoff from developed properties around Lake Whatcom as a way to reduce pollution.

Bellingham and Whatcom County must reduce the excess phosphorus coming off developed lots around the lake by 87 percent, according to a state Department of Ecology report published in November. Phosphorus is a natural element found in soil, and only the excess known to come from developed areas needs to be treated.

Lake Whatcom is the drinking-water source for nearly 100,000 county residents.

No one says cleaning up the lake will be easy or inexpensive. The county and city, working with the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, will have 50 years to get the job done, at a cost that will be in the untold millions of dollars.

The clock will start ticking on the requirement sometime after the Environmental Protection Agency approves the state’s final draft report on Lake Whatcom. The federal review should take three weeks to three months, Ecology spokeswoman Krista Kenner said.

The EPA has been working with Ecology all along on the report, which was started in 2002.

“It’s very unlikely that they would deny it,” said the report’s author, Ecology water quality engineer Steve Hood, “but it’s not off the table.”

Ecology’s report will not surprise local officials. The agency’s conclusion remained unchanged since the first draft of the report was released in February 2013.

Ever since the state declared in 1998 that Lake Whatcom had too much phosphorus and fecal bacteria, city and county officials have known they would have to address the lake’s pollution problems. Not long after that, they got started.

The city, the county and the sewer district next year will launch their fourth five-year plan on how to reduce pollution in the lake.

“The real hard focus on phosphorus reduction has been in the last 10 years,” said Clare Fogelsong, Bellingham natural resources policy manager.

While fecal coliform is listed as a Lake Whatcom pollutant, it is mostly limited to the creeks that flow into the lake and the beaches. Swimming in water contaminated with fecal bacteria slightly increases the risk of illness or infection.

Phosphorus is a bigger threat. It stimulates algae growth, which causes oxygen depletion in the lake and the death of fish. High algae levels blocked Bellingham’s water intake in the summer of 2009, leading to mandatory restrictions on water use. Earlier this year, some Bellingham residents detected a foul taste and odor in the water that also was attributed to algae.

The county and city have made measurable progress stopping phosphorus from entering Lake Whatcom. The state collected data on stormwater-treatment systems and found that 8 percent of the reductions needed to meet the water-quality standard are already in place, according to the state’s report.

The city estimates it will have removed “more than 10 percent” of the excess phosphorus going into the lake by the end of the year, Fogelsong said.

Public stormwater projects are built to take in runoff from multiple properties, and remove at least some of the phosphorus before releasing the water into the lake. Systems built so far treat 307 of the city’s 467 acres in the watershed, Fogelsong said.

The city and county both passed laws requiring no net phosphorus escaping newly developed lots, against some resistance from real estate interests. The cost to improve a small lot ranges from $7,000 to $20,000, according to a 2013 county estimate.

If the state’s pollution goal for Lake Whatcom is to be met, phosphorus must be removed from the water running off already-developed lots. Ecology offered grant money, first to Bellingham then to Whatcom County and the city both, to pay homeowners to reduce stormwater pollution on their properties. The grant money will run out at the end of this year.

City Council member Pinky Vargas said at a Nov. 10 meeting that continuing the incentive program was “critical.” Runoff from 20 percent of the land around the lake can’t be treated by the larger public stormwater projects. This includes homes along the shoreline that feed stormwater directly into the lake.

With up to $6,000 available to Silver Beach residents, stormwater-improvement projects have been completed on 127 developed lots since 2011, Vargas said. Possible approaches to this type of project include removing pavement and lawn, and adding rain gardens or other features that filter stormwater.

The county and city will continue to give property owners incentives to clean the stormwater coming off their lots. Draft budgets included $200,000 a year for the homeowner program in the city, and $25,000 in the county. Eight Lake Whatcom properties in the unincorporated county participated in the incentive program this year, said Kirk Christensen, county stormwater manager.

The 2015-19 work plan will focus on getting lakeside residents to participate voluntarily. City Council member Michael Lilliquist asked for a more aggressive approach: more money in the incentive program, and something a little more like a stick rather than a carrot to provide incentive.

“We will eventually need to move beyond voluntary,” Lilliquist said on Nov. 10. “We will exhaust that pool of people.” He suggested that homeowners who haven’t yet fixed their yards eventually pay a higher stormwater fee than other city residents.

Mayor Kelli Linville agreed that stricter laws should be among the city’s options.

“If our lake quality isn’t improving, we continue to have a regulatory stick, but we’re not focusing on that first,” Linville said.

So far, Lake Whatcom hasn’t improved. The most recent water-quality assessment, using 2013 data, showed pollution levels have been holding steady the past few years.

Ecology’s Hood indicated it will take a long time to turn the ship around and show improvement in phosphorus levels. For now, it’s more about slowing down the rate at which the pollution gets worse.

“The ban on winter construction, that was tremendous” for reducing dirty runoff during the wet season, Hood said. “By the same token, we don’t control the weather.” A few winters ago, soggy conditions led to multiple small mudslides into the lake.

Phosphorus will always be in the lake, but 50 years from now the problems it causes should be less common.

Even then, Hood said, “it still might take a few years for the lake to reach equilibrium.”