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Public input sought on 5-year plan to clean up Lake Whatcom

Bellingham and Whatcom County officials are working on the next five-year plan to clean up Lake Whatcom, including buying land to protect it from development and reducing harmful phosphorus levels in the lake.
Bellingham and Whatcom County officials are working on the next five-year plan to clean up Lake Whatcom, including buying land to protect it from development and reducing harmful phosphorus levels in the lake. The Bellingham Herald

Cleaning up Lake Whatcom is a big job, so local officials are approaching it one bite-sized chunk at a time. To get an idea of how big the cleanup job is, each “bite” takes five years to complete at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

The public can learn about a draft of the next five-year work plan for Lake Whatcom, covering 2015-19, at the next meeting of the Lake Whatcom Management Program Policy Group.

The group, consisting of representatives from the city of Bellingham, Whatcom County, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, and Sudden Valley, meets at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, in City Council Chambers, 210 Lottie St.

The Policy Group will take public comment on the draft plan at the meeting. Comments also are being accepted through March 18 by city Natural Resources Policy Manager Clare Fogelsong at cfogelsong@cob.org.

The bulk of the plan outlines how agencies would make progress on a 50-year effort to reduce phosphorus in the lake. Other goals include preventing invasive mussels and other non-native flora and fauna from entering the lake, preventing hazardous-material spills, and otherwise protecting water quality. Lake Whatcom is the source of drinking water for about 100,000 residents.

The cost estimate for the plan, which is bound to change, is $45.7 million, including $25 million for land acquisition.

The second most expensive program is aimed at phosphorus. The $14 million for improved stormwater capture and treatment would go toward a state-mandated goal to reduce phosphorus from developed land by 87 percent in 50 years. The Department of Ecology report that sets this goal hasn’t received final federal approval yet but is expected to go into effect as is.

Phosphorus occurs naturally in soil, and the excess storm runoff from hard surfaces (roofs, roads and driveways) on developed land increases the amount of the substance entering the lake. Phosphorus 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. Last year, some Bellingham residents detected a foul taste and odor in the water that was attributed to algae.

One significant step the city and county would take over the next five years is to ask homeowners to add stormwater treatment systems to their properties, most likely at some cost to the resident, to eliminate phosphorus runoff. Money in the form of staff time will be spent on educating Lake Whatcom residents on this key role they can play in meeting the state-mandated pollution target.

The city has not yet set a goal for how many private properties should participate in the program, which expands on a pilot residential stormwater project the county and city conducted along Silver Beach Creek.

“I’m pretty sure there have been some lessons learned about more successful residential retrofit strategies,” Fogelsong said.

Lake Whatcom information

For the 2015-19 draft report and more information about the health of Lake Whatcom, go to lakewhatcom.whatcomcounty.org.

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