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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Getting People Onboard, Or At Least Aware

Hi all,

As you know if you have been following this blog, or my Whatcom Water Action Facebook page, I have been pretty focused on water issues since the County Council passed the Water Action Plan resolution this spring. Results from the survey I undertook showed strong support for the County moving forward on nearly every water issue. There was also strong support for a number of the possible actions that could be taken to address these issues, including the need for greater outreach so people understand there is a problem and what they can do to help solve it (technical assistance), enforcement of the rules when education and technical assistance don’t get through to some, and increasing taxes or fees if necessary to accomplish those things.

Our County Executive – Jack Louws – has embraced the Council’s request for focused engagement on many of these water issues. On Tuesday (7/8/14) he will for the first time start to lay out his thoughts on the issues and the options that will be in front of the Council this fall when we get into the budget approval where we can help shape future staffing and what gets paid for. It should be an interesting presentation if you can make it at 9:30AM in the Council chambers.

One issue that I believe is critical is for the County (and our city partners) to expand the amount of outreach that is provided so people understand the problems and have access to ways they can personally help solve them. This clearly needs to be ramped up before any significant enforcement of the rules take place, because the reality is that many people don’t know about the problems or the rules in place to address them.

I am not talking about generic brochures and radio ads. I am talking about focused communications with people that are currently under some sort of rules that they may not even realize exist. Things like septic system owners, people who live in critical area zones, and small hobby farmers. People need to understand their legal obligations, be told why those obligations exist, how to most easily and effectively meet those obligations, and have advanced warning that if they don’t meet their obligations there will be penalties.

For instance, I live in the Shoreline Zone along Ten Mile Creek. Most people that live near me have no idea that they live in such a zone, or that living there includes restrictions on being able to build, clear vegetation, put in a sidewalk or patio, or even bring in soil. On any particular sunny Saturday you can drive through my neighborhood and hear chainsaws cutting trees, hear hammers pounding nails as new structures go in, see people dumping yard waste down the hill into the shoreline buffer, or let their dogs run down to the creek to crap, etc.  I’ve never talked to anyone out here who says “I think I will spend the day reading the County’s Critical Areas Ordinance so I understand what my obligations are.”  And as far as I can tell the County has never told any of these people that they live in this special zone, and have obligations.  I know that in the 16 years I have lived here I have never been told what my obligations are and why they are important, and there certainly was no disclosure made when I bought the property that I was taking on these special restrictions. 

Does County government think people will learn about these rules somehow on their own or from someone else? I would hate to think how my neighbors would react if all of a sudden the County began to talk about enforcing these rules before people were even told they exist and apply to them. Lots of pitchforks in this neighborhood, and I have no doubt they will come out if the County tries to jump the gun on enforcement before adequate notification and education is provided.

Of course this leads to a much deeper discussion of what is adequate and effective education that leads to changing people’s behavior, and when is it time to say enough is enough and start to use enforcement to change the behavior of those who refuse to be educated. Lots of shades of grey and differing timelines that need to be focused on different issues and geographies. For instance, I think the people in the Lake Whatcom Watershed have been educated pretty clearly and consistently for years so their timeline to enforcement needs to be shorter.  Each area and issue needs a careful communication plan, and the County needs to commit to stay the course. Previous efforts have been derailed early on when even the first efforts at notification and education have been responded to by anger and misinformation leading weak-kneed politicians to pull the plug on any meaningful water improvements. I suspect that is why I have never received anything letting me know I live in a Shoreline Zone.

Will this time be different? Well-designed initial education efforts, with input and involvement of those affected, are the first critical step. If done right this notification and education step can preclude the need for most enforcement, but in the past the County has not done this well. Are there other groups out there that could do this better, in a more inclusive manner, for some of these issues?  Before we can get into the weeds on who and how and where, the County Council needs to prioritize long-term money for this effort. We’ll see where that discussion goes on Tuesday.

See you there.