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.