A respite from water rationing in Bellingham

Cooler weather and voluntary conservation saved the day, but the underlying problems with Lake Whatcom remain
Crosscut archive image.

Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, Wash. (Creative Commons / Wikimedia)

Cooler weather and voluntary conservation saved the day, but the underlying problems with Lake Whatcom remain

Bellingham's algae bloom persists, but residents can water their lawns, again. The bay city lifted its landscape watering moratorium on Tuesday, after a weekend of cooler temperatures and scrupulous conservation. Public Works Director Ted Carlson said Bellinghamsters cut water use so much that the reservoirs of treated water have refilled and there's an ample supply for fire fighting and other emergency uses.

Last Thursday, July 30, the city announced a dramatic drop in water production from its treatment plants and prohibited the watering of lawns or landscape ornamentals. A rampant spread of blue-green algae in Lake Whatcom, Bellingham's wide-open and nutrient-rich water supply, had clogged the city's filtering system to such an extent that water officials worried about their ability to keep a prudent margin of supply beyond the daily demand.

According to the Bellingham Herald, the abnormally high levels of algae may have resulted from a record heat wave that has since abated, and from heavy runoff of algae-feeding minerals during last winter's exceptionally heavy storms.

The city of 75,000, and another 20,000 in its suburban service area, depend on the largely unprotected Lake Whatcom for their un-metered and generally unregulated water supplies. The lake's condition has been the center of intense debate between Bellingham and Whatcom County governments, whose jurisdictions share the lake boundaries. Its shorelines, in sharp contrast to those of the locked-up Seattle watershed, were open to intense home building and recreation for decades before the algae began to be a serious problem.

As Crosscut reported in May of 2008, the Washington Department of Ecology has ordered that city and county governments find a way to reverse the land use patterns and stop the flow of phosphates and other algae-boosting nutrients from graded land and fertilized lawns. Both local governments have scrambled to impose restrictions on population growth in the watershed. However,­ as last week's mini-crisis indicates, their efforts came a few decades too late to avoid trouble.

Bellingham water managers never fail to emphasize that the quality of the city's water remains high despite the prevalence of the blue-green algae, and that federal water quality standards have not been compromised.

From now until September 15th, residents will be asked to follow a voluntary every-other-day watering schedule to reduce consumption. Unlike Seattle's water service area, where water use is checked by steep price increases, Bellingham doesn't meter its water. Meters are installed in new homes, and older homes are being gradually retrofitted, but it will be years before the city can regulate consumption by metering. Meanwhile it relies on voluntary citizen cooperation to keep water use to a reasonable level.


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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.