Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fixing the existing jail is not feasible!

One claim made by many is that the County ought to just repair the existing jail and continue to use it instead of spending so much money to build a new jail. That type of statement has been oft repeated, and seems to have started with an article in Northwest Citizen by Juliette Daniels.

First off, Juliette Daniels is a lawyer, and as a lawyer she is very good at advocating for the position she is being paid to advocate for. Her articles in NW Citizen are advocacy pieces meant to get people to vote against the jail, not educational pieces meant to help inform the public about both sides of the issue. She chooses pieces of reports very carefully to tell her side of the story. For instance she says this about the County study of the existing jail:

"While the Executive Summary of the Engineering Report states that a new jail is needed, that summary statement is unsupported by any details that follow in the report. The Engineering report estimates that it would cost $32.4 million to repair and use the two jails that we already have for the next 20 years." 

Her statement is not accurate. The $32.4 million figure is not correct, and that figure was not an estimate of what it would cost to create a humane jail layout with treatment cells and meeting facilities. That estimate was only to correct the serious health and human safety issues. The consultants did not give an estimate to actually remodel the building to be a code compliant and humane facility. To do the needed total remodel to create a jail with the humane attributes that nearly everyone says we should provide the study says this (page 79):

"This would require a complex design, essentially gutting the building and starting over within the same footprint. This would also entail relocating inmates and staff, while construction is underway. Our team does not recommend this option and feels it would still not achieve a better, or code compliant facility. The costs to undertake a major remodel such as this are potentially more than a new jail building in another location. Should the County wish to explore this option further, our team could complete a feasibility study and a cost / benefit analysis."

They do provide support for their statement unlike what Ms Daniels claims. Read the Operational Assessment piece that outlines a good deal of this, which can be found with the whole report at:

So yes we could spend $30-40 million to correct the current code deficiencies and address other health and safety concerns, but after spending that money we would still not have a jail that meets the needs that every group that has looked at the jail wants. It would not have adequate medical and detox facilities, and it would not have facilities for meeting space for inmates to meet with loved ones, lawyers, or take classes to prepare them for release. To provide those things would cost tens of millions of additional dollars, and such a remodel would leave us with a jail that could house many fewer inmates. The current jail is bursting at the seams and typically houses around 200 people per night. To add the needed facilities and get it up to code would leave us with many fewer beds - I have heard in the neighborhood of 125. That is not enough beds for the current use, and the current use already requires cities like Bellingham to ship people over to Yakima to house them. Shipping people out of their community is also not a recommended practice because it takes them away from whatever loved ones and support system they may have. Remodeling and continuing to use the existing jail would not save much money, and would ensure that some prisoners need to be sent out of the area. It also probably would mean that cities such as Bellingham would need to build their own separate facilities to handle people, at least temporarily. 

This oft repeated "just fix the current jail" idea does not seem like a responsible solution to me, and spending tens of millions of dollars on such a poor temporary fix also leaves us holding the bag for the ever increasing cost of a real long term solution.

Vote yes for a safe and humane criminal justice system. Vote yes on the Public Safety and Jail Sales and Use Tax

By Kelli Linville, Pinky Vargas, Gene Knutson, and Carl Weimer

Before us again this year is a proposition on funding a new jail facility for Whatcom County. Voters might be asking themselves why they should support this measure after a similar vote came before voters two years ago. Many significant changes have been made, and we are now supporting this new jail proposal for several reasons, and we hope you will support it too.

This jail measure is about humanitarian choices. The choice is whether to fund a criminal justice system that we want or to make the situation worse by not funding a facility to take people who have committed crimes in our communities. While Whatcom County is responsible for all of the felony convictions in the county, cities are responsible for lesser convictions, which is about 22 percent. Without a new facility, cities -- including Bellingham -- will be left woefully short of options and will be forced to either not arrest people who commit crimes or to take people to Yakima or beyond before they have even had a trial.

Our goals for a new jail have been to reduce incarceration and recidivism, to have a safe and functional jail that is the right size for our community, and to have the resources we need to fund alternatives to incarceration. This current jail proposal is a great step towards those goals.

We believe the jail proposal addresses the following concerns:
  • Protecting victims: Our criminal justice system is designed with both punitive and restorative elements, and while we need to provide the option of rehabilitation to those who commit crimes, our community also expects that we will keep violent or dangerous people off our streets. We owe it to the victims of crimes to have a jail that fits our community.
  • Behavioral and mental health: The new jail proposal will add 34 new mental health beds to our community. This resource is badly needed, and this is our opportunity to locally fund this mental health treatment in Whatcom County.
  • Jail alternatives: Both the County and the City of Bellingham have been investing in alternatives to jail for years, and are committed to increasing those investments in incarceration prevention to both treat people more humanely and drive down the costs to our taxpayers. But these incarceration prevention efforts do not negate the need for a new jail facility. Additionally, Whatcom County and Bellingham have agreed to a contractual obligation to use $30 million from this ballot measure to fund jail alternatives. That money for incarceration prevention programs will not be available if this ballot measure fails.
  • Oversight: The County and all the cities in Whatcom County agreed to establish and participate in an advisory board to discuss matters and make recommendations related to jail finances and operations. This means that Bellingham and the smaller cities will have a voice in how the jail is managed, which the cities haven’t had before.

We need a safe jail. The current facility is a risk to both staff and inmates, and the lack of space to separate inmates and provide treatment is inhumane. No amount of remodeling of our existing jail will provide enough space for programs, recreation and opportunities to our incarcerated population. They deserve dignity and opportunities that cannot happen in the existing building. Not only does this proposal help address those needs, it also helps cities fund their own public safety needs, such as police and fire. We join all the city mayors, councils, the sheriff and the county executive in supporting this proposal.

If you want the criminal justice system to change for the better in Whatcom County, we urge you to vote yes on the Public Safety and Jail Sales and Use Tax proposition.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cherry Point, The Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan, and Existing Jobs

As you probably know for the last six months the County Council has spent the majority of our time reviewing and amending the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Before that the Planning Commission spent a few months doing the same. During all that time the one part of the Comprehensive Plan that has by far received the most public comments has been the section on Cherry Point that helps provide goals and policies for the industrial develop there. While the Council spent inordinate hours going line by line tweaking the language in all the other sections of the Plan, because of the pending bulk commodity pier permit at Cherry Point we were advised by our legal counsel to not get into issues around Cherry Point that could in any way impact our ability to make an unbiased decision toward that application.

In early May the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit for the bulk commodity pier because they found the impacts of the proposed pier footprint would violate the Lummi’s usual and accustomed treaty fishing rights. Then in early June the Washington State Department of Natural Resources denied the application for an aquatic lease for the bulk commodity pier proposal “because the project cannot meet minimum requirements set forth in statute and rule.”

While the County still has a pending application for a permit for the bulk commodity pier, these decisions by the federal and state governments were interpreted by some members of the County Council as enough reason to start addressing the thousands of comments we had received about needed changes to the Cherry Point section of the Comprehensive Plan.

About a month ago I introduced a comprehensive rewrite of the Cherry Point section of the Plan to address requests from the general public as well as specific requests from the Lummi Nation. To date, those proposed amendments have not been considered by the Council in the same manner as all the other amendments have been, and to date I have not been allowed to explain why I believe they are important. Since it appears now that the Council will not take up these proposed amendments as part of the current comprehensive plan review, but punt those decisions into the future for several months, I want to publicly explain these proposed amendments now because of all the false claims made regarding them from people on both sides of the issue. One of the main claims made has been that my amendments would harm or eliminate the “current 9000 jobs” that Cherry Point supports. While that claim by Cherry Point industry is a great rallying point and scare tactic, I don’t believe my proposal does anything of the kind.

My amendments tried to accomplish five main things. Those were:

•  Editing the descriptive section of the Cherry Point chapter to more accurately reflect current knowledge of the importance of the area. My edits leave in place strong language regarding the importance of the existing Cherry Point industries to the health of the Whatcom County economy, but try to also provide some acknowledgement that since the last version of the plan was drafted a good deal has been learned about the importance of the area to the ecology of the Salish Sea, the treaty protected fishing rights of local tribes, and the historical, cultural, and spiritual importance of the area to the Lummi Nation. I also acknowledged, due to ongoing proposals to use Cherry Point for the export of various fossil fuels, the growing scientific evidence of the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels to protect the global climate as well as the health of the ocean. Nothing in the descriptive section of the Cherry Point chapter can affect jobs – it is just descriptive. Whether people and ultimately the Council agree with my description or want to describe it differently is certainly up for discussion, but it certainly does nothing to harm existing jobs at Cherry Point.

The real meat of the changes to the Cherry Point section of the Comprehensive Plan is in the four redrafted or added policies. These policies together are meant to strengthen the ecological protection of the Cherry Point reach from potentially harmful new development, to acknowledge existing laws, and to help the County better understand what options it has when it comes to controlling the types of hazardous products that can be handled at Cherry Point that must first be somehow transported through our community. Here is a brief description of each policy.

•  One policy (2CC-14) basically says that the County will undertake a study to examine what legal authority we have to “limit unrefined fossil fuel exports from the Cherry Point UGA above levels in existence as of July 5, 2016.” This is meant as a way for policy makers to get some clear legal advise on what we can and can not do regarding the transportation of unrefined products, such as crude oil, liquefied petroleum gas, or coal through our community for export to other countries. Our citizens are often demanding we do something to help combat climate change or make transportation safer, and many local governments are struggling with these complicated jurisdictional questions trying to determine what they can legally do without wasting taxpayers money in court defending laws that are most likely preempted by state or federal laws. Personally I think the County’s authority is fairly limited, but without some analysis the County Council has no idea what can and can not be done, and this policy is meant to help force answers to those questions. Portland, Oregon is doing a similar analysis right now. A study to help government understand its authority to control huge amounts of new, often dangerous, products moving into the community in no way undermines existing jobs.

•  Another policy (2CC-13) basically just acknowledges a long existing federal law, and seeks to make sure the County is not wasting taxpayer’s money processing and approving permits for things that will clearly not be allowed under that federal law. Nearly 40 years ago Washington Senator Warren Magnuson got passed an amendment to the Marine Mammals Protection Act to protect Puget Sound from the risks posed by increased oil tanker traffic. That existing law basically limits new oil terminals or expansion of existing terminals if those facilities would increase the amount of oil transported on Puget Sound and the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The entire Magnuson Amendment (217 words) is below so you can read it for yourself. The existing Cherry Point industries have survived and developed under this law for 40 years, so a new policy to ensure that the County is not wasting time or taxpayer’s money processing permits that conflict with this law will in no way change what existing industries at Cherry Point can and can not do, or harm any existing jobs. Below is the Magnuson Amendment, which is an EXISTING federal law that the industries throughout Washington already have to abide by:
33 U.S. Code § 476 - Restrictions on tanker traffic in Puget Sound and adjacent waters

 (a) The Congress finds that—
(1)  the navigable waters of Puget Sound in the State of Washington, and the natural resources therein, are a fragile and important national asset;

(2)  Puget Sound and the shore area immediately adjacent thereto is threatened by increased domestic and international traffic of tankers carrying crude oil in bulk which increases the possibility of vessel collisions and oil spills; and

(3)  it is necessary to restrict such tanker traffic in Puget Sound in order to protect the navigable waters thereof, the natural resources therein, and the shore area immediately adjacent thereto, from environmental harm.
(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, on and after October 18, 1977, no officer, employee, or other official of the Federal Government shall, or shall have authority to, issue, renew, grant, or otherwise approve any permit, license, or other authority for constructing, renovating, modifying, or otherwise altering a terminal, dock, or other facility in, on, or immediately adjacent to, or affecting the navigable waters of Puget Sound, or any other navigable waters in the State of Washington east of Port Angeles, which will or may result in any increase in the volume of crude oil capable of being handled at any such facility (measured as of October 18, 1977), other than oil to be refined for consumption in the State of Washington.
•  The third proposed policy (2CC-2) is just an amendment of an existing policy meant to ensure that developments at Cherry Point operate in harmony with the existing Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve’s Management Plan. The language I added expands on this some by adding specific additional requirements that would apply to new development to protect the shoreline, near shore wetlands, estuaries, and cultural resources of Cherry Point. These additional requirements would not affect existing operations or jobs in the area, and we would have to implement these with changes to the County Code that would also need to go through a public process.

•  The final proposed policy (2CC-10) is more significant because it changes the County’s current policy from allowing one additional pier at Cherry Point to holding the line at the current three piers. This was based on concerns for the health of the Cherry Point ecosystem, risks from additional ship traffic, and the recent Army Corps decision that made clear that the footprint of an additional pier would interfere with treaty guaranteed fishing rights. While this change in policy could reduce potential new jobs at Cherry Point, it certainly does nothing to harm existing jobs. The prime Cherry Point uplands would still be available for other types of industrial development, and many types of such development produce more jobs than bulk shipping terminals.

I hope this helps explain my intent, compared to all the baseless arguments made against these amendments. I have no doubt that if the County Council takes up these amendments some will be changed and some may be dropped altogether. That’s the way the legislative process works and I am fine with that. What I am not fine with is completely ignoring issues that many in our community have raised as critical to the review of Comprehensive Plan, a plan which is supposed to set the vision for Whatcom County for the years to come. My vision is a Cherry Point where industry thrives in harmony with the important Cherry Point environment, treaty fishing rights, and cultural resources. And a Cherry Point where job expansion is not based on impacting surrounding communities with excess transport of hazardous materials or by transporting those materials in less than state-of-the-art safe modes. And a Cherry Point economy based on a long-term sustainable vision that does not encourage increased climate change, ocean acidification, and other forms of global pollution by exporting unrefined fossil fuels.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lake Whatcom Issues in the Works

Hi all,

Now the our budget is pretty well set we are starting again to talk about the policy issues that the money is meant to support. There are a couple of Lake Whatcom issues that are scheduled for discussion.

The first one is scheduled for today at 1:30 - see notice below

Lake Whatcom Policy Group Agenda
Fireplace Room
625 Halleck Street
(in Muni Court Building)
Bellingham, 98225
November 3, 2014, 1:30 PM

Lake Whatcom Management Program 2015-19 Work Plan
Goal: Review critical policy questions for the plan, including financing, and the process for plan adoption
a. Residential retrofits and related financial considerations
- Presentation on program design
- Geographical considerations in program delivery
- Financing the program 2015-19

b. Discussion of retrofit policy and financial issues

The discussion of these residential retrofits is important because the primary source of human-caused phosphorus into Lake Whatcom comes from existing development. To successfully clean up Lake Whatcom we need to find a way to retrofit existing homes to reduce the phosphorus running off those properties. For the past few years local government has been experimenting with a subsidized retrofit program where financial assistance up to several thousand dollars was offered if a property owner would agree to retrofit property to capture a certain amount of phosphorus runoff.  That pilot program - the Homeowner Incentive Program (HIP) - was grant funded for the most part, but that funding is drawing to a close. Monday afternoon staff will explain their design ideas for a long term retrofit program, what efforts would and would not be allowed, costs and geographical differences, and how it is going to get funded. 

The budget implications for this effort could be huge. With about 6900 existing homes in the watershed if we agreed to help retrofit them at say $1000 each that would be almost $7 million over the next few decades. The HIP program was offering up to about $6000 in assistance, so at that level the costs could be as high as $40 million. Lots of variables, and some of these homes probably don't need assistance, but you can see the policy implication are significant. This program has also been voluntary up to this point, but it would appear a purely voluntary approach will not get us to where the science says we need to go. What is the proper way to move from voluntary to a more required approach?

Add to that scenario a discussion about the 1800 lots that exist in the watershed that could still be developed. Should this "incentive" money also be available to those landowners to help them design in good phosphorus controls as they move to develop those lots? if so we could add an additional $1.8 to $10.8 million to the pot. This subject is warming up again because County Council member Sam Crawford has started to question the wisdom of the regulations that the County passed a couple years ago that requires all new development to be able to prove the development will be done with no net addition of phosphorus to the lake. This regulation has added an additional $15-20 thousand dollars to development of smaller lots, and according to Sam has brought development in places like Sudden Valley to a halt. He seems to be questioning whether our rules to protect the Lake are worth the negative impact to development there. He is working to bring information together to make his point to the entire County Council, which ought to create a lively discussion since some of us don't think development is always the highest and best use of the land. Part of that discussion I am sure is whether this money for incentives to capture phosphorus should be extended to undeveloped lots to help them overcome the barrier to development while still protecting the Lake. 

So the big questions in all of this are: 

•  Is it the public's responsibility or at least in the public's best interest to pay for any of this, or is it solely the property owners responsibility? 
•  If it is not the public's responsibility, then how do we make property owners do this work?
•  If the public does share some of this responsibility, then how much should we fund and for what?

This discussion could also inform how similar storm water efforts are handled in many other parts of the County.

I suspect there will be some real gnashing of teeth over these discussions. Hope people will pay attention and provide their perspective.



Saturday, August 2, 2014

Caution - Only For Those Who Can Think Beyond Soundbites

Hi all,

Yesterday the County Council received a long memo from local attorney Robert Carmichael on behalf of the Birch Bay Water & Sewer District in response to the Council's request for comments on our Water Action Plan. I have posted the entire memo here for the real water wonks among you who want to try to wade through it (13 pages). While the letter states up front it is only regarding water quantity and availability issues, it also takes some interesting forays into salmon, in-stream flows, the lack of connection between the county's land use planning and water issues, and current inadequacies in the County's Comprehensive Plan. It is a good read for those who want to better understand the complexity of these issues and how they are all so clearly intertwined. 

I agree completely with the two overarching statements in the memo for how the County should proceed with water quantity issues. Here is what Mr. Carmichael wrote:

"First, determining water availability must begin with a vision for achieving knowledge based allocations of water resources which meet the present and future needs of agriculture, industry, commerce, domestic uses, recreation, and fish and wildlife. To date, little progress has been made. There are many reasons for this failure, but one basic reason is that we lack an effective, well-focused process for determining minimum instream flows necessary to protect fish and wildlife."
"Second, there must be a concerted effort to integrate land use planning with water resource planning. While there presently exists a clear public process for land use planning, the same cannot be said for water resource planning. At present, the process of resolving water availability issues is unduly fragmented and disorganized, and, unfortunately, is becoming more so."

I also completely agree with many of the major points he makes such as:
  • Focusing only on the human demand side of the water equation will not create a good result. The real water available needs to be quantified too.
  • Setting in-stream flows that protect fish and other wildlife needs to be job one in determining how much water is then left over for human use.  
  • The need for better coordination between land use planning and water planning. Continuing to a grand degree to pretend these two are separate issues is just plain stupid.
  • The County's Comprehensive Plan needs significant work on water resource issues.
There are a few areas in the memo that while I don't disagree with Mr. Carmichael I have some major concerns. For instance Mr. Carmichael points out that the County needs to be the lead entity in these efforts because the County holds no water rights so is the one local government who has no built in conflict of interest. One of his points about this was:
"Parties holding meaningful water rights of their own have a built-in conflict of interest which no amount of good intentions can cure. It is essential to the credibility of the process that leadership come from an entity without direct legal interests of its own to protect."
Yet he then goes on to suggest a greater role for the WRIA 1 Planning Unit in these decisions. By the very make up and voting requirements of the Planning Unit those with these "built-in conflicts of interest" hold veto power over changing minimum in-stream flows that could affect their interests. I was on the Planning Unit for years and believe in the value of having a strong, knowledgeable body to help move these water issues forward, but that body needs to come up with methods to deal with members who may have more of an interest in not moving changes forward to protect the broken status quo. How can we make the progress Mr. Carmichael outlines if some of the Planning Units members are just there to say "No."  Can enough progress be made if all the recommendations coming from such a body are the lowest common denominator?  Luckily we have the tribes forcing some of these groups to pull their heads out of the sand. 

Mr. Carmichael's description of how the Planning Unit ought to operate is certainly a goal I support and think we should strive to attain. Unfortunately, his description would include the Planning Unit members understanding and commenting on the details of highly technical in-stream flow and groundwater models, habitat assessments, etc. Many of the current Planning Unit members do not have the scientific background to be able to do this, and are highly suspicious of those who do. This seems like another real barrier to the Planning Unit moving issues forward if there are members who are unwilling to accept technical findings if they are unable to understand the science that developed them. I will continue to support funding, perhaps at even greater levels, for the Planning Unit because I can't come up with a better way for the community to be involved in finding solutions to these problems. That funding will be jeopardized if the Planning Unit itself can not find a way to deal with technical issues that may be beyond the understanding of a majority of the members. We can't all have degrees in hydrology, biology, law, engineering, etc, so how do we find a way to review and trust technical information so the system does not bog down unnecessarily?

Finally, Mr. Carmichael also describes a whole range of studies and actions that the County as lead agency should be moving on. Most all of his suggestions seem valid and important to me. These suggested actions would cost the County hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when we have no money in reserves to cover these costs, and funding from the state and federal governments is declining. Even the Department of Ecology recently quit attending Planning Unit meetings explaining that they did not have the resources to attend and had higher priorities. So if Mr. Carmichael and other members of the Planning Unit believe we should be providing more support and staffing for the Planning Unit, and for a variety of studies to support dealing with water quantity issues, it would be great if they would also provide support for paying for these things. Is each government caucus like the one Mr Carmichael represents willing to put $100,000 into a pot each year to pay for these ideas? Are they at least willing to pass a resolution in support of the County Council raising taxes slightly for the Flood Fund to pay for this? Asking for things is cheap, paying for them is a little more difficult.

I thank Mr. Carmichael and the Birch Bay Water & Sewer District for their memo which is the most in-depth and thought provoking response I have seen to date from the Council's request for such input. The County Council can certainly not solve all these problems this year as part of our budget process, but hopefully we can set a new course for the County on water issues that will lead to significant improvements in the coming years. Glad so many diverse voices are encouraging us to try!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

Last Tuesday, the County Executive unveiled his initial response to the County Council’s Water Action Plan initiative, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the scope and depth of proposed funding and programs. Many of the programs lined up well with what we had been hearing from our advisory groups and the public, such as the need for a focused Pollution Identification and Correction Program (PIC). His initial recommendation called for the county to spend an additional $1,827,100 per year to address a variety of water issues.

The County Executive proposed to accomplish this without any immediate tax or fee increase by spending down the current Flood Fund balance over the next few years. The Flood Fund currently has about $12 million in it, with a little less than half of that designated as a reserve to be maintained for response to a major flood event. The Flood Fund brings in a little more than $3 million each year from property taxes. A property owner with a home worth $250,000 currently pays a little less than $3/month into the Flood Fund.

While I support and am heartened by everything the Executive brought forward there are still some major holes in our response to water programs that I think need to be addressed better and sooner than what is proposed, and there is still the gorilla in the room question about what we do in 2-3 years when the money is gone from the Flood Fund. Here are some of the holes I see:

A strong education/outreach component seems to be missing. The ultimate success of many of these programs – Stormwater, PIC, Lake Whatcom, Habitat - will hinge on our ability to make thinking about our impacts on water part of what all of us who live here do. Concern for our local waters needs to be as commonplace as the way we have changed our thinking about littering, seat belts and smoking in restaurants. That can only be accomplished through commitment to a strong ongoing education/outreach effort. This outreach needs to include the labor intensive activities that provide hands on programs that allow people in each area that could be affecting water to learn about the possible impacts in the area, what the current monitoring shows, and then involve them in coming up with solutions that work in their area. An example of one such local effort underway these days can be found here. That local story of involvement and solutions then needs to be shared, over and over again, with the neighbors in those areas who have not yet engaged. That costs money, and I would say the Executive’s proposal is about $250,000 short in this category.
Restoration needs to be a higher priority. Many of these water issues stem from the need to provide more water in our streams, and better water quality and habitat to restore salmon and shellfish. In reality salmon and shellfish are the often-used species that serve as indicators for all the other types of fish and wildlife that depend on our local waters and riparian corridors to survive. If we undertake activities that help salmon and shellfish we often also help other species, but we need to do a better job of ensuring that is happening. My recent survey showed that doing what we can to ensure a sustainable number of salmon was the second highest priority for those who responded, yet the Executive's proposal provides no increase in activity toward salmon enhancement. I think at a minimum we should consider funding another Washington Conservation Corp crew like the one we already help fund through the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association. This crew could focus on providing free assistance to the landowners identified through the PIC program and the Conservation District who need to do upgrades on their property to protect water quality and enhance habitat. Things like fencing access to creeks, restoration planting of stream banks, and removing already identified fish passage barriers. We should also consider providing funding certainty for the current Marine Resource Coordinator position that currently is funded on a year-to-year basis from grants. By committing to this position all the grant money that comes in for marine restoration work can then be used for actual near shore restoration works that enhances salmon survival potential. Those two items would cost an additional $175,000.

Regulatory Outreach and Enforcement.  The County currently has no enforcement staff to deal with water related issues such as compliance with our Critical Areas Ordinance, Shoreline Program, or conditional use obligations that could impact water quantity or quality. This effort has been missing or understaffed in the County for years so there is a big hole to climb back out of. The Executive’s proposal is for a half time position to deal with this, but that seems completely inadequate. With hundreds or even thousands of small farms, and even more homes within our shoreline zones, the residents of which have little idea that there are protective regulations that apply to them, this will be a huge effort to inform these people that there are legal obligation they need to comply with. The initial years of this “enforcement” will not be much about writing people tickets, but will need to be focused on just making sure people are aware of the laws and their obligations, and the assistance that is available to help them make the necessary changes. This enforcement outreach is necessary to ensure that property owners take advantage of free assistance programs like those that the Whatcom Conservation District and the Washington Conservation Corps make available. For the majority the realization of legal obligations will be enough to make changes, while for others the knowledge of potential enforcement is necessary to lead to the desired behavior changes. I think at least two full time positions are needed for this effort, which would add about $150,000 to the Executive proposal.

Water Availability.  The Executive’s proposal includes many important studies that need to be accomplished to better plan for future water needs. These include the Coordinated Water System Plan, groundwater modeling to determine the connection between groundwater and surface water, and non-municipal water demand forecasting. Unfortunately none of these studies include the other side of the equation – how much water is likely to be available to meet all of the demands to be forecast. At this point we appear to be trying to address this huge issue like some ignoramus would address balancing his checkbook. We are only focused on what we want to spend, and have not paid any attention to what our actual income is. While the proposed studies are all important, we also need to use whatever power we have to push the Department of Ecology to actually do their job and set and enforce in-stream flows that are protective of salmon, and encourage the federal government to move as expeditiously as possible in defining the tribal water rights that include these in-stream flows so we know how realistic our water demands are and how much water trading needs to happen. At a minimum our studies need to include a review of current legal waters rights with an estimate of how those rights, junior to the tribal rights, might be affected by the future federal ruling. Add an extra $50,000 for that effort.

Then there’s the Gorilla in the room – funding all this into the future. The Executive’s proposal would add an additional $1,827,100/year for water programs, and my additions above would add an additional $625,000 to that for a total of $2,452,100/year. While the Executive has suggested we use our excess fund balance in the Flood Fund to address these added expenses over the next few years, everyone realizes that is a short-term solution. I believe the Council needs to start dealing with the longer term funding solution for this immediately while we are all focused on these water issues. While the Council and Executive will be discussing potential funding scenarios over the next few months, at this point it seems to me the fairest way to deal with this funding shortfall is to start putting in place a stormwater utility district. Nearly half of these new expenses are related to new state and federal requirements for dealing with pollution coming from development in the more urbanized areas of the County (Lake Whatcom, areas bordering Bellingham and Ferndale, and Birch Bay). Bellingham, Ferndale and to some degree Birch Bay have already implemented such stormwater districts to charge residents in those areas for costs of their impacts that now need to be addressed. If the County created a similar Stormwater District for those within these newly regulated areas it could generate the needed money while avoiding asking other county residents who either are not creating these problems, or are already paying into a stormwater fund where they live to subsidize this effort. The additional money needed to address the other water problems could be raised by a relatively small increase in the county-wide Flood Fund. An additional $1/month on a $250,000 home would generate about a million dollars per year for these efforts. 

There are no easy or cheap solutions for these water issues, but it is good to see so many people coming together to try to address them now, instead of kicking the can further down the road for our children to deal with.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bacterial Pollution = Manure Management

Yesterday I talked about the need for a comprehensive notification and education system as one of the keys to fixing our local water problems. Today I will start to provide what I think the priorities need to be in each of the key water issues people identified in my survey. Lets start with what people thought was the #1 problem in our local waters - bacterial pollution or fecal matters.

The bacterial pollution in some of our key waterways, such as much of the Nooksack drainage, has been increasing again in the last few years. The rise in pollution will most likely cause another closure of the Portage Bay shellfish beds which cost the Lummis somewhere near $850,000/year. But this is more than just an economic cost but also a human health issue for anyone that may come in contact with the Nooksack River and the streams that flow into it. While we monitor mostly for the fecal coliform bacteria, its presence indicates the presence of many other bacteria also such as E Coli.

This bacterial pollution comes from many different sources including livestock manure, septic systems, and pet and animal waste. To those who have been paying attention it is clear that the recent increases in this pollution are due primarily to manure from dairies, cattle operations, and the hundreds of small hobby farms in our rural areas not being managed correctly. While there is no doubt that septic systems and pet and animal waste also contribute to this pollution, and need to be addressed, the dramatically high numbers of bacteria in some recent monitoring cannot be accounted for by septic, pet, and other animal waste.

So what needs to be done? Manure needs to be kept out of our waterways. The County and other agencies have ramped up water quality monitoring efforts and this needs to continue. By taking water samples at many places and regularly over the course of the year water problems can be identified earlier. Then additional water samples can be taken at different places along a creek to help pinpoint where the actual pollution is coming from. This is the first part of any successful Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program. Once the problem area has been identified than the “correction” part of the program can take place to alleviate the pollution from whatever source it may be coming from. The monitoring results are also valuable in communicating to the public what is going on, and enlisting their help in correcting problems if it turns out they live in an area with higher levels of pollution.

In addition to correcting known pollution sources we need to do a better job of preventing the pollution in the first place. Many large livestock operators, such as most of the dairies in the county, are required to have custom farm plans that spell out how to properly manage manure so it does not pollute our waterways. Most of these operators are doing a good job, but even a few large operations not following their manure management protocols can have a huge impact on water quality. The state Department of Agriculture oversees dairies in this county, and unfortunately they report that under their rules they have no authority to enforce those required farm plans. In other words dairies are required to have a farm plan, but they are not required to follow that plan by the state regulator. The Department of Agriculture can only enforce the rules against a dairy if they can prove the dairy has discharged manure to our waterways, which is difficult to do after the fact. The County should lobby the Department of Agriculture, Department of Ecology and the Governor’s Office for a change in the rules so these farm plans that are meant to prevent pollution are enforceable, and fines for operators found not to be following a farm plan after a discharge into our surface waters should be tripled.

For the smaller operators and hobby farms the County already has a good Critical Areas Ordinance to protect our waters from this form of pollution. These farms are required to either maintain standard protective buffers along streams (50 – 150 feet) so the manure cannot get into our waters, or participate in the Conservation Program on Agricultural Land (CPAL) which requires operators to have and follow a farm plan. These farm plans provide for manure management techniques that can be used to reduce the width of the buffers. While the CPAL part of the Critical Areas Ordinance could greatly reduce pollution of our local waters, the County has ceased all enforcement of these provisions, and currently has no staff for this activity. Due in part to the County’s lack of enforcement the state Department of Health and the Department of Ecology have brought in personnel to try to correct this void in protection of our local waters. The fix for this portion of the problem is clear. The County needs to ramp back up their CPAL program and get on with the task of ensuring that people in the county that have livestock are either obeying the standard setbacks or obtain a farm plan that would give them the flexibility to reduce the setback widths in return for good manure management practices. The County should ASAP hire two staff members to ramp up this process while at the same time contract with the Whatcom Conservation District to provide free outreach of livestock requirements and technical assistance to property owners to develop their farm plans. For the small hobby farms education and outreach needs to happen first including clear timelines for when enforcement could begin. The dairies and larger cattle operations are well aware of the rules and the time for enforcement is now, and the County should use its authority under the Critical Areas Ordinance to assist the state agencies gain access and enforce our required farm plans and buffers.

While I do not believe septic systems are currently as major a source of bacteria into our local waters as livestock, fecal bacteria from humans has been found nearly everywhere it has been tested for, and failing septic systems or systems that have not been pumped as needed have been shown to be the source of this pollution. The County’s rules for septic system maintenance require an inspection at least every three years, but again after pushback from the public those rules have largely been ignored except in areas defined as “marine recovery areas.” Currently the only area defined as a marine recovery area is the watershed that drains into Drayton Harbor near Blaine. That area is getting focused attention to make sure residents are following the inspection and maintenance rules. With the rise on fecal pollution in the Nooksack I believe the entire Nooksack Basin should be declared a marine recovery area, and the Whatcom County Health Department should then start following the monitoring results from an expanded PIC program to focus where to ensure people with septic systems are following the rules. Currently the County allows residents to self-inspect their septic systems, and the data collected since this was implemented indicates that some people abuse this self-inspection system. If after ramping up the education and requirements for inspections in the Nooksack Basin the levels of fecal pollution from septic systems is still too high we may need to go back to requiring professional inspections of these systems on some sort of regular basis.

Poop from other animals such as dogs and cats and wildlife also add to the bacterial counts in our local waters. While there is little we can do about wildlife, we can significantly reduce the amount of pet waste that ends up in our waters. I know my Shepherd Lab mix produces a good deal of poo each day, and it is my task to manage that crap so it doesn’t end up down the hill in Ten Mile Creek. Pet waste management is just another of those obligations for the privilege of living along the creek. As I talked about yesterday we need to increase our educational program so it becomes standard knowledge, and the only socially acceptable norm, to scoop the poop.

Well I think that is enough about poop for one day. All the above would probably cost the County in the range of $500,000- $600,000 per year to begin with.