Civic Agenda: Winter preparedness focus of Whatcom Public Works

Whatcom County completed the Academy Road stormwater facility on North Shore Road in the Lake Whatcom watershed in summer 2015.
Whatcom County completed the Academy Road stormwater facility on North Shore Road in the Lake Whatcom watershed in summer 2015. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“He who is best prepared can best serve his moment of inspiration.”

― Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The time honored work of Whatcom County’s farmers and fishermen is closely tied to a natural order of things. Most of us these days are a little removed from this natural order; however, we still find our lives organized around the changing seasons. Fall in Whatcom County means back to school, falling leaves, pumpkins and thinking about raincoats and skiing. Fall is a time for reflection and for preparation. Life at Public Works respects these changes, too. Where summer is the season of out-and-about action, fall is the time to contemplate our work and to prepare for the trials of winter.

Contemplating a banner summer

The summer of 2015 has been a banner year for our maintenance crews, project engineers and construction contractors. It is a year that will not be forgotten soon, because Public Works, with its agency and private sector partners, delivered some $5 million of maintenance work and $14 million of transportation, stormwater and flood control improvements.

Extensive pavement maintenance was completed on the Mosquito Lake Road, Lake Whatcom Boulevard, Lakeway Drive and around Lake Samish, to name a few. A new round-a-bout was installed at the junction of Smith Road and Everson Goshen Road. Rehabilitation of four miles of the Hannegan Road completed a full makeover from Lynden to Bellingham. On Slater Road, new turn lanes greatly improved driver safety at the intersections of Ferndale Road and Imhof Road.

Several major bridge projects are now under our belts. The Nooksack River Bridge at Potter Road near Van Zandt has been completely replaced, the Nooksack River Bridge near Lynden has been improved against scour from the moving river gravels, and a major retrofit of the Dakota Creek Bridge on Portal Way is near completion. The Nooksack River Bridge on Slater Road near Ferndale is freshly painted.

$5M maintenance work completed in summer

$14M spent this summer on transportation, stormwater and flood control improvements

Associated with our transportation system and flood protection are improvements to the Nooksack River levee system underway at Bertrand Creek and at the DeBoer levee near Ferndale. Also, an impressive new stormwater facility now exists at North Shore Road in the Lake Whatcom watershed. Stormwater improvements are still under construction in Birch Bay.

As extremely proud as we are to report a record $19 million season, it is important to recognize how much of that value your Public Works staff brought into our community. Fully 80 percent of this summer’s construction bills were paid by state and federal transportation and stormwater funds. Keep in mind that their efforts to tie down funding began far in advance of 2015. And, if that is not enough to celebrate, consider that, at our request, the County Council approved a $13 million transportation program for next year. The Council’s approval of the county’s six-year transportation improvement program set the stage for financing Public Works improvements for 2017 and beyond. Please don’t forget to thank them for that.

Preparing for winter weather

Maintaining and improving our public transportation system is about enabling families friends, and neighbors to move safely and effectively about the county. Winter ice and snow, wind storms and major floods test our ability to provide these services. Every fall your safety during adverse weather becomes one of Whatcom County’s greatest inspirations. Ask any emergency responder or public works employee — fall is about winter preparedness.

Freezing temperatures mean increased danger on our roadways. Public Works crews attack this through proper drainage, early detection, de-icing and sanding and snow plowing.

6,000 feet of snow fence typically installed

100,000 sand bags ready to fight flooding

Your crews work year round to maintain roadside drainage ways open and flowing freely. Fallen leaves, storm debris, blue tarps or soccer balls can quickly undo that work, plugging culverts and backing water onto roadways. We rely on good neighbors and vigilant commuters to help identify and report these dangerous drainage conditions for speedy correction. Please remember that driveway culverts and private stormwater facilities are the responsibility of individual homeowners. Take time to inspect and clean your drainage and stormwater systems so that the public system will function properly.

Public Works has installed frost detectors on approaches to many county bridges. The purpose is to warn drivers, cyclists and pedestrians when temperatures drop close to freezing, causing icy conditions on the bridge decks. Approach signs are posted in advance of the frost detectors. Slow down and use caution when the detectors show blue.

Deicing, sanding and snow plowing crews are on the road before, during and after ice and snow storms. They are deployed night and day on pre-established schedules that consider traffic volumes, school bus routes, public transportation routes and business centers. They pay close attention to localized conditions. They typically install 6,000 feet of snow fence prior to winter’s arrival. The intent is for residents to know the level of service to expect throughout the winter and from year to year. Emergency response always takes priority and may divert crews from the established schedule. You can find Whatcom County’s snow response schedule on our website: whatcomcounty.us/589/Snow-Routes. Please plan your commute with that knowledge in mind.

Your safety is a partnership between your government and you — please do your part. Be aware, be prepared.

Wind storms in our neck of the woods can be a big deal. Public Works crews respond by clearing downed trees, repairing signs and coordinating with emergency responders and Puget Sound Energy crews. Our message to you —stay clear of downed power lines and stay alive. Check out PSE’s website: pse.com/safety/GetPrepared/.

Major floods are not an annual occurrence on the Nooksack River; however, when they happen lives are threatened and livelihoods are disrupted across the county. Whatcom County government takes a long-term, proactive approach to reducing flood risk. Even so, flood fights are sometimes necessary. Together with local flood districts, emergency responders and volunteers, Public Works personnel are the boots on the ground during a flood. These dedicated individuals monitor flood waters, walk levees and fight floods — usually in the dark of night. They also have over 100,000 sand bags for deployment during these flood emergencies. During flood conditions we expect exceptional vigilance and good decisions from you. If you can’t see the road beneath the flood, then turn back. Honor road closure signs. Use good sense. Stay alive.

Whatcom County government strives to minimize the hazards and perils of winter. We are proactive in reducing road and flood hazards with your well-being in mind. In the end, though, your safety is a partnership between your government and you — please do your part. Be aware, be prepared.

For more information about breaking winter weather, travel conditions, or emergency preparedness please refer to Whatcom County Public Works at whatcomcounty.us/308/Public-Works.

Report flooding, storm damage, or dangerous travel conditions by calling 360-778-6400.


Jon Hutchings is Whatcom County Public Works director. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.