Homeowner buy-in needed to meet Lake Whatcom cleanup goal

The next time a Lake Whatcom resident hears from the city or county, it may be to commit to some serious and probably expensive yard work.

Bellingham and Whatcom County are funding the next phase of a program that pays homeowners up to $6,000 to partially cover the cost of systems that will capture stormwater from the property and filter out the phosphorus.

The new program is part of a comprehensive five-year plan to clean up Lake Whatcom, for 2015-19.

The original Homeowner Incentive Program was funded by a grant but was limited to Silver Beach Creek and the north end of the lake. All residents in the watershed can participate in the next generation of the program, although most of the attention will be directed at areas where the stormwater program would be most effective, city Stormwater Manager Bill Reilly said.

Where those areas are hasn’t been decided yet.

“We’re going to be looking at a facelift for that program, going out to homeowners, trying to find out what it is they would like to do on their properties, find out how we can best work with property owners,” Reilly said on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at a Lake Whatcom Management Program Policy Group meeting. Representatives of Bellingham, Whatcom County, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, and Sudden Valley sit on the policy group.

Stormwater coming from 20 or 25 percent of the developed land around Lake Whatcom can only be treated directly on the properties, requiring homeowner cooperation, Reilly said.

The state in 1998 listed Lake Whatcom as exceeding pollution standards for phosphorus. The chemical depletes oxygen in the lake enough to threaten aquatic wildlife and causes algae blooms, which can gum up water-system intakes and affect the taste of drinking water. Lake Whatcom is the water source for about 100,000 county residents, including those in Bellingham.

Phosphorus is an especially difficult problem to solve. It’s a naturally occurring element found in the soil, and every time it rains some of it washes into the lake.

Except for the occasional landslide, a forested landscape does a good job of filtering the phosphorus out of the storm runoff. By contrast, stormwater glides right over roofs, driveways and lawns on its way to the lake.

The county and city will soon be directed by the state, under the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act, to reduce the phosphorus coming from developed areas around Lake Whatcom by 87 percent to adequately reduce the pollution level.

Officials haven’t figured out how they’re going to get property owners to literally buy into this effort. One idea put forward by a policy group member was to have information presented in easy-to-understand terms.

“When we say that we’re from the government and we’re here to infiltrate your property, it’s probably not the best way to communicate that we want to help you install a rain garden,” said Dan Hammill, a Bellingham City Council member who is on the policy group.

Getting out the message about Lake Whatcom’s pollution problem has been fairly effective but also limited, said Carl Weimer, a County Council and policy group member.

“People have had quite a bit of outreach,” Weimer said on Thursday, Feb. 26, in an interview. “But a lot of times it’s been singing to the choir, to people who are open to that message. We need to find ways to communicate with the rest of the people.”

Officials working to clean up Lake Whatcom have another public relations problem, Weimer said.

“We keep hearing from people in the community that no one’s doing anything to improve Lake Whatcom, and us that come to these meetings every month knows that’s not the truth,” Weimer said at Wednesday’s meeting. He suggested an online dashboard showing how much phosphorus a new stormwater system is keeping out of the lake, and which systems have been inspected.

Clare Fogelsong, city environmental policy manager, said he didn’t know if city staff was up to the task.

“We’ll look at it. It may be that it’s easier than I’m anticipating right now,” Fogelsong said.

City staff took comments at Wednesday’s meeting on all elements of the five-year plan. The public can continue to comment on the plan through March 18 by emailing cfogelsong@cob.org.

The plan is available online at lakewhatcom.whatcomcounty.org.

At its next meeting, on March 16, the policy group will review how the staff incorporated comments received up to that point. The work plan is expected to be approved at a joint meeting of the city and county councils, and the Water and Sewer District, on April 22.