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EPA approves 50-year cleanup plan for phosphorous in Lake Whatcom

Development around the north end of Lake Whatcom in Bellingham on Monday, April 11, 2016. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved a 50-year plan that requires 87 percent of the developed area around the lake to store and filter water like a natural forest.
Development around the north end of Lake Whatcom in Bellingham on Monday, April 11, 2016. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved a 50-year plan that requires 87 percent of the developed area around the lake to store and filter water like a natural forest. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

A 50-year plan to vastly reduce the amount of phosphorous flowing into Lake Whatcom has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The cleanup is expected to cost an estimated $50 million in the first five years. It will require 87 percent of the developed area around the lake to store and filter water like a natural forest so phosphorous can seep into the ground instead of flowing into the lake.

Put another way: 3,500 acres, out of 4,000, must function like a forest to hit the cleanup goal.

The requirement isn’t a surprise. Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham have been expecting to be directed by the state, under the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act, to reduce the phosphorus level around the lake by 87 percent.

“We’re looking at a huge investment on the part of local governments, but we’re also looking at local governments willing and committed to making this investment,” said Steve Hood, water quality engineer for the state Department of Ecology, on Monday, April 11.

The city, county, and Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District already have started working on different projects — most recently, they’re in the midst of a comprehensive five-year plan to clean up Lake Whatcom — to restore the health of the lake, which is the source of drinking water for about 100,000 residents in Whatcom County including Bellingham.

The EPA approval granted on Thursday, April 7, is the latest step and essentially gives the state the authority to limit the amount of phosphorous entering the lake, Ecology officials announced Monday. It also links increasing phosphorous levels to development.

Improving the lake’s water quality will be the city and county’s responsibility, and will be done in five-year increments. The next step is to give Ecology a budget and timeline by Oct. 7 for how they’re going to do that.

As for the overall plan approved by EPA, it already has two decades of research and study behind it.

In 1998, the state listed Lake Whatcom as exceeding pollution standards for phosphorus, which has depleted oxygen in the lake enough to threaten fish and aquatic plants, and cause algae blooms that can gum up water-system intakes and affect the taste of drinking water.

Phosphorus is a naturally occurring element found in the soil as well as human and animal waste, some fertilizer and detergents, and every time it rains some of it washes into the lake.

A forested landscape acts like a sponge and helps filter the phosphorus out of storm runoff. By contrast, stormwater glides right over roofs, driveways and lawns on its way to the lake.

Preventing stormwater runoff, then, is the main focus of the cleanup.

So officials are buying land to keep it from being developed, building stormwater facilities like bio-infiltration swales and treatment vaults to keep phosphorous out of the lake, and encouraging property owners through the Homeowner Incentive Program — and giving them money and help — to do things like install a rain garden and switch out their lawns for native plants.

Fecal coliform in the streams that flow into the lake also are addressed in the cleanup plan, with Ecology saying that the measures to keep phosphorous out of the lake also will curb fecal coliform.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Learn more

Additional information about Lake Whatcom and the cleanup plan can be found online at :

▪ lakewhatcom.whatcomcounty.org for the Lake Whatcom Management Program.

▪ ecy.wa.gov for the Washington state Department of Ecology. Type “Lake Whatcom Water Quality Improvement Project” into the search window.

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