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.