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.

Click on chart to expand

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


  1. There are certainly challenges in finding the funds to clean up the Lake, and no easy answers on how to undo what has already happened. However, to avoid even more costs down the line, we should be curtailing development in the watershed until it can be demonstrated that the new development will help reduce the 303(d) issues around phosphorus loading. And by 'demonstrated' I don't mean someone has an idea they think will make their development proposal politically palatable.

    We need empirical proof. Besides the current detrimental effects of every new development in the watershed from runoff, increased traffic, etcetera, as more property gets developed, even at zero net effect, there is that much less property available to address the larger issue of rolling back phosphorus levels to where they were in 1983, 86% below current levels if my memory serves. The few ideas that seem to offer promise (in terms of reducing the amount of phosphorus in storm water runoff) take a lot of land and require reasonable percolation, both of which become scarcer as more development occurs.


  2. Funny how in the graph titled "Lake Whatcom Phosphorous Ideas - Weighted Answers" the "answer" that is currently being used, buy up private and public property with taxpayer/public fee dollars and turn it into an eventually off limits park, isn't listed. Perhaps it wasn't asked, lest the public cry foul...

    1. I forget to include the question people were asked to answer, which was about best ways to deal with "existing development." Purchasing undeveloped property does little to help the impacts of existing development, just keeps things from getting worse.

      Here was the actual question:

      The phosphorus pollution of Lake Whatcom is caused by many different sources. Local government has spent millions of dollars mainly targeted at controlling the phosphorus coming from undeveloped land, and from areas in public control such as roads, ditches, creeks. It is clear that we can not clean up Lake Whatcom without also reducing the pollution that comes off of property where homes already exist. Those methods include changing landscaping to more native vegetation, infiltrating water into the soil with various drainage improvements such as french drains and rain gardens, removing impervious surfaces, etc. Please provide your thoughts on these methods for getting private property owners to control their runoff.

  3. Owners in our watersheds could significantly reduce their phosphorus pollution: a county funded program to collect (recycle) lawn clippings could be added to our established recycling program. Give us bags or containers for lawn clippings for regular pick up.

    That's an easy way to get homeowners to take action to benefit our watershed health. And it opens the discussion that will educate us on how to protect water quality.