Seattle's water is Bellingham's wishful drinking

Motorboats, dogs, people — they're all in it up in Whatcom County. Now the state of Washington is cracking down.
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Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, Wash. (Creative Commons / Wikimedia)

Motorboats, dogs, people — they're all in it up in Whatcom County. Now the state of Washington is cracking down.

Here's a tip for consumers who have doubts about the quality and security of Seattle's tap water: Think of Bellingham. It won't improve your drinking water, but you might feel better about it.

Here in Bellingham, we swim in our drinking water. So do our water-loving dogs. Boats are all over our drinking water, with all kinds of motors, except for the old fashioned two-stroke that lays an oil plume you can see, and those were banned only a couple of years ago.

The 75,000 citizens of this most congenial city drink from Lake Whatcom, as do another 20,000 or so in the suburban service areas. Bellingham controls land use in only a small portion of its water source; the rest lies in unincorporated Whatcom County. That's where large areas of undeveloped watershed offer potential riches to developers and potentially huge phosphorous loads for the drinking water.

Thirteen thousand already live near the edges of Lake Whatcom, on 3,600 acres. Some are still using septic tanks. Current zoning would permit 6,800 more acres to be developed, allowing the watershed population to grow to about 28,000. That would mean new land being cleared, thousands more lawns draining fertilizer, thousands more pets doing what pets do.

It's instructive to compare this with the way Seattle runs the Cedar and Tolt river drainages that supply water to the city and most of King County. Seattle's watersheds are fenced and locked. You may look at the Cedar River landscape from July 11 to Sept. 9, from a sightseeing bus that runs three days a week out of North Bend. (e-mail for reservations or call 206-233-1515.) But you can't hike in there, or camp or boat.

As the result of a lawsuit settled two years ago, Seattle allows the Muckleshoot tribe to hunt and fish on the Cedar, under a highly restrictive agreement. That's it for public access. The Tolt watershed, acquired much later than the Cedar, is less pristine but just as tightly locked.

Not that today's Bellingham officials wouldn't like that kind of protection for their water source. They're working on it. On May 19, the City Council imposed, at the urging of Mayor Dan Pike, an emergency moratorium on all subdivisions or development on Bellingham's portion of the lake. That stops 150, maybe 200 new dwelling units. The city has also spent $16 million to buy up 1,341 acres of undeveloped land to keep it undeveloped.

But today's green-minded Bellinghamsters came on the scene about 50 years late. When the city started pumping water from Lake Whatcom in the mid-20th century, it was already a nice recreation lake and a magnet for boaters and homebuilders. It has grown itself into a nice dilemma that will cost un-guessable millions to solve.

Recently the Washington Department of Ecology turned a high pressure hose on Bellingham and Whatcom County. Full in the face, no softening agents added. Ecology told city and county staff they must cut by 74 percent the effective acreage of development in the Lake Whatcom watershed. Seventy-four percent. That's like rolling back the history of this community to some point in the 1960s.

"No, we can't tell them to remove any homes from around the lake," says Katie Skipper, communications manager for Ecology in the Bellingham region. "But they will have to put the watershed in such a condition that the landscape acts as though 74 percent of the existing development wasn't there."

In a report, the department lays out, for the first time, a direct mathematical link between the acres of developed land in a watershed and the amount of phosphorous that flows downhill in storm water. The phosphorous feeds algae in the lake. The algae produce organic carbons that, treated with chlorine (used to disinfect water here, as everywhere else), form compounds that have the potential to cause cancer.

It's a vicious circle: As the algae die, they feed bacteria that rob the water of oxygen. The lower the oxygen content, the more phosphorous is released from bottom sediments in the lake, feeding still more algae. It's what scientists call a "positive feedback," and it adds to the devilish difficulty of reversing the growth of algae, according to Robin Matthews of Huxley College of the Environment in Bellingham. She directs an annual scientific state-of-the-lake study and for more than 18 years has been warning anyone who'll listen of the lake's worsening condition.

Bellingham's reservoir is still well within the safety level set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water, Matthews says, "But we're headed in the wrong direction." She predicts a long and very difficult turnaround. "It's taken 18 years to get to the point where almost everyone's convinced of the soundness of the data," she says. "It'll take decades more to solve the problem."

There are lingering disagreements among some scientists over the link between organic carbon, chlorine, and cancer, but that doesn't matter so far as the Department of Ecology is concerned. Its report, and the tough requirements to follow, deal with the broad environment, not just with human health. Lake Whatcom is what the department calls an "impaired body of water," and the city and county would be required to fix it even without the public health concerns.

Until a few years ago, Whatcom County's electeds (as opposed to those of the city) fought land use controls as a threat to the freedom of property owners. This was one of few counties that defied the state's Growth Management Act until forced to abide by its land use restraints. Only in recent years, with the election of what's referred to locally as the "environmental majority," did County Council members begin to put the brakes on new development around Lake Whatcom.

Since then, they've taken some prudent steps. Grading is banned in the rainiest months. Developers have to keep much of their land in natural vegetation. The county's finally testing all septic systems and requiring the owners of faulty ones to fix them. All this is aimed at slowing the increase in phosphorous buildup in the water supply, but none of it starts to reduce what's already there.

Both the county and city have banned phosphate lawn fertilizers within the Lake Whatcom drainage, but there's no fertilizer cop on Saturday patrol to see what's in the spreader. "There's really no process for enforcement," according to Chip Anderson, an environmental engineer with Whatcom County's Department of Public Works. "If someone called to say their neighbor was out there spreading phosphate, then someone would probably come out and talk to the neighbor. But it's mostly educational. We'll try to persuade people to stop using it."

If Ecology has its way, they'll have to do more than persuade. Once the Lake Whatcom report is officially approved by state level managers — probably within a year — it will have the force of law. Local governments can face draconian penalties if they don't produce a plan to meet the Department's requirements.

Whatcom County Council member Seth Fleetwood says he and the rest of a tenuous environmental majority are delighted with the report. "It gives us the political cover we need to get the problem under control," he says. "Now we have no choice. We do it right or we'll pay some huge fines."

Bellingham City Council President Barbara Ryan agrees. "We've been hoping for this for a long time," she says. "Up to now there've been many groups who argued about the science. Especially at the county level, there was always just enough opposition to stop what needed to be done."

Expect long and tense debates about what to do next. Speculation ranges from a huge buyout of existing homes to massive house-by-house retrofitting, with retention devices designed to keep each household's storm water on each household's property. There's even talk of building a new reservoir up in the hills, far from the growth area. No one who counts the public cost seems to take that seriously.

"We can't tell them what direction to choose," Ecology's Katie Skipper says. "It's up to the city and county to decide how to fix the problem. We tell them what the result has to be."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.