Friday, June 27, 2014

Fixing Lake Whatcom

Hi all,
On Monday (6/30) at 1:30 the Lake Whatcom Policy Group will be meeting to discuss the thorny issue of how fast we should move to try to clean up Lake Whatcom. The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) order that the Department of Ecology will soon release will most likely allow us up to something like 50 years to implement work to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering the lake to near natural levels. With a strong commitment from nearly all elected officials these days that this is a priority some have suggested that we should move to accomplish this cleanup much more quickly – say in half the time required. So that timeline, and ways to fund whichever timeline we set off on, will be the main topics of discussion at this meeting.

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My initial take on this was that of course we should try to clean up the lake as soon as possible, but the more I consider this the more I can see that that decision is complicated, especially for the County. The current estimate for accomplishing the cleanup comes in right near $100 million, so to do that over fifty years amounts to an average of $2 million per year, which is close to what the City and County are currently spending on the lake (although a chunk of that $2 million is state money we can’t rely on). To speed up that cleanup to 25 years would require us to double our spending to around $4 million per year. I can’t speak for the City, but the County does not have that extra money so we would need to raise taxes or fees to cover that, which the chart below showing results from my recent survey seems to indicate people support. The rub for me is that I also know that there are a whole slew of other water issues in other parts of the County that need probably a minimum of $1-2 million in additional revenue also, and these are issues that we are not currently spending nearly anything on. So for me the question comes down to - what is the benefit of spending to clean up the lake twice as fast as required? Is there a human health, ecological, avoided costs benefit? I have asked these question of the Lake Whatcom Policy Group and our staffs, and so far have not got an answer. We’ll see what is said on Monday.

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Of course current councils will have a very hard time setting in stone any plan to clean up the lake in 25 years, let alone 50. Things will change which will affect whatever timeline we choose. New councils will be elected, technologies may improve, the phosphorus modeling and monitoring may indicate unexpected changes, and truth be told at this point we don’t really even know the best way to accomplish some of this.
One uncertainty revolves around one of the most important and hardest actions to take – retrofitting existing development. For the past few years we have been testing a Homeowners Improvement Program (HIP) which offers people up to $6000 if they will work with staff to implement retrofits of their property to decrease phosphorus runoff. While the program has been successful to date, it is also clear that to date we have only been successful with a small percentage of the watershed residents who to a large degree represent the choir – those who are paying close attention and ready to do whatever they can. How do we attract others to this program and how do we pay for it. Below is another chart that shows the results of my survey about how people believe we should approach this problem, and if these results are accurate it shows we have another challenge in front of us – either implementing retrofits without financial incentives by passing regulations requiring retrofits, or better explaining to people the need to use some percentage of taxpayer funds to help share the financial pain of these costs with watershed residents.

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Monday’s meeting ought to be interesting. See you there.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Initial Water Survey Results

Hi all,

I have been quiet on this blog waiting for some of the County's advisory committees to chime in on their thoughts on our water needs based on the request from the County Council in their Water Action Plan resolution. I also wanted to allow people to take the online questionnaire I posted without too much upfront discussion of the issues.

Since the Water Action plan resolution came out the League of Women Voters has help two forums on waters issues, and the Rome Grange has held three water forums. All these forums included well balanced panels of knowledgeable speakers. You can view the League of Women voters forums here, and the Rome Grange Forums can be seen here, here, and here.  In addition to these forums many of the County's advisory committees that have some role in water issues have begun to talk about their priorities, and some have already provided advice to the council. In addition to that Executive Louws and his staff have begun a process to bring forward a menu of options for the Council to consider that would start to address some of our water issues. At the County Council's July 8th Council meeting Executive Louws will give the Council an overview of what he and his staff have developed. This will give the Council about a month to consider these initial ideas before our summer recess in August during which the Executive's office starts to put together their final budget proposal that will come to the council later in the fall.

I have also pulled all the information that was provided by over 200 people that took the time to fill out my questionnaire on water issues. An overview of the results of the survey-type questions can be found here. Over the next couple weeks I will describe some of the individual findings in more depth, but thought I would tease you with this one result which seemed like the one question that came closest to creating a consensus answer. The question asked was:
--> "County staff, advisory committees and local citizens have developed a list of nearly 300 water projects and programs that are thought to be of some importance. At our current levels of spending on water programs we are not able to accomplish many of these, or address other issues such as water rights that some would like us to take a more active role in." Here are the combined answers to that question from across the county:
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You can download the survey questions result yourself at the link above, or you can stay tuned to this blog where I will provide some analysis of what I found interesting. Please take these results with a serious grain of salt. Like any online based survey the results are questionable because those that fill them out are self selecting, and with only 200+ people taking this county-wide the sample size is pretty small. That being said, the way this was released and pushed out to a wide range of people interested in water issues, I think the result are interesting. The above graph was the easiest to interpret, and I was really pleased to see such a high percentage of people share my belief that it is time for the County to "step up."