Op-Ed

Community Conversation: Urban water quality problems in Whatcom County

Scenic Wiser Lake, teeming with wildlife and lovers of the outdoors, empties into the Nooksack River. Stormwater Stewards help keep our urban waters clean. Contact North Sound Baykeeper Wendy Steffensen at wendys@re-sources.org for more information.
Scenic Wiser Lake, teeming with wildlife and lovers of the outdoors, empties into the Nooksack River. Stormwater Stewards help keep our urban waters clean. Contact North Sound Baykeeper Wendy Steffensen at wendys@re-sources.org for more information. The Bellingham Herald

Poor water quality affects human and environmental health. Urban runoff, failing septic systems, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and poor management of manure all contribute to water pollution. Although most of us know about the high levels of phosphorus in Lake Whatcom, we face many other problems. Here are some examples.

Development throughout the county, in rural and urban areas, increases the amount of impervious surface, such as pavement, rooftops, and other hard surfaces, and often leads to the filling and loss of wetlands. These developments prevent soils from absorbing rainfall, increase flooding and worsen water quality.

▪ Low streamflows, high temperatures, sediment, and low levels of dissolved oxygen combine to dramatically reduce the quality of water that salmon need to thrive. This is especially critical for those fish listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

▪ Nitrate contamination affects the drinking water for about 27,000 rural residents in the northern part of Whatcom County, people who draw water from the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer.

▪ High levels of fecal coliform often force the closure of shellfish beds in Drayton Harbor and Portage Bay, affecting tribal, commercial and recreational harvesting.

Although part of the blame for water pollution lies with our built environment, the remainder is caused by our behaviors. We drive cars, fertilize our lawns, neglect to pick up our dog’s poop, kill weeds with chemicals, and so on.

Both urban and rural residents contribute to water pollution, and all of us need to take steps to prevent pollution.

Urban issues

Let’s start with the urban environment. Most of us live in urban enclaves, and most of the streams that flow through these areas are polluted and not fit for fish. Part of the blame lies with the built environment itself. Our roofs, streets, parking lots and other impervious surfaces, a result of our car-dependent lifestyle, capture and transport pollutants directly into our streams. To help with this problem, we can encourage cities to choose to avoid runoff in the first place by installing more natural solutions — like rain gardens and other alternatives to pavement.

Have you ever noticed oil on the pavement in a parking lot, making its way into a storm drain, possibly one that is marked, “No Dumping, Drains to Stream”? Oil, with its rainbow colors, is a clearly visible pollutant, but there are plenty of invisible, and frankly unpronounceable, pollutants that flow into our waters as well. Copper from brake pads, fertilizers and pesticides from lawn care, and bacteria from pet feces all pollute our waters. These pollutants endanger fish and people, and can cause harmful algae to grow in creeks and streams.

Commercial areas

In a survey of pollutants from urban runoff, the Department of Ecology found that most of the unpronounceable chemicals come from industrial and commercial areas. While we may not spend much time in industrial areas, we do frequent shopping malls and areas with large parking lots. The next time you park at your local grocery store or in the neighborhood strip mall, look around and see if you can spot where the water ends up, and then see if you can determine what water body the polluted water is discharged to.

Although part of the blame for water pollution lies with our built environment, the remainder is caused by our behaviors. We drive cars, fertilize our lawns, neglect to pick up our dog’s poop, kill weeds with chemicals, and so on. You have probably seen lists of “don’ts” numerous times. The challenge to all of us is to stop doing what is harmful and to start doing what is helpful. Do bike, walk, and use mass transit; do pick up your pet’s waste; do use natural methods to maintain your lawn.

Stewards needed

Here is another task to add to your new “do” list — one that will be helpful, fun and connect you to the people and water around you. Remember that parking lot we mentioned earlier? With your neighbors and friends or perhaps your neighborhood association, adopt that parking lot. Find out where the water goes and how it’s treated. Make friends with the store-owners and the stormwater utility in your city. Find out whether there is room for a stormwater retrofit or change in practices. Then, tell us about it! We’ve had great success working with neighborhoods to help reduce pollutants in runoff and we can give you some helpful tips as you and your neighbors become Stormwater Stewards. Contact North Sound Baykeeper Wendy Steffensen at wendys@re-sources.org for more information.

This is one of a continuing series of columns about the water problems and potential solutions in Whatcom County. Eric Hirst holds a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University and worked for 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since moving to Bellingham more than 12 years ago, he has served on three advisory committees for the city of Bellingham, was involved with the formation and early operation of the Whatcom County chapter of Futurewise and served on the board of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. Wendy Steffensen is the North Sound Baykeeper. We invite your participation in this community conversation. Send feedback to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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