Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lake Whatcom: A Lilliputian Response to a Gulliver Proposal

On 11/6/2001, just short of 2 months after 9/11, and with remarkable 'irrational exuberance', I presented the following very ambitious proposal to our County Executive. I shouldn't have bothered, because his immediate reaction was to look at me with the same kind of suspicion that befit facing a terrorist! 'Who else have you shown this to?'' were his first words that I recall.

So much for thinking a big possible solution could kill even one bird with that stone, much less three. My ideas went over about like a lead cloud! Plus, it must have reinforced his opinion that I could be a real troublemaker, and not to be trusted.

As the years have passed since then, my early impression of that moment has certainly been proven accurate. He didn't want to go there at all, because these ideas were sure to cause him trouble. Subsequently, I have observed his preference is just to keep the wheels on the Lake Whatcom wagon as long as possible, by talking the right words from to time to make people think he might actually 'WALK that talk'.

At the time, in my naivete, I was -cautiously- optimistic that at least some of these ideas might germinate and enjoy modest success. Coming off of the amazing things that Bellingham accomplished after the Olympic Pipe Line Disaster; after the Silver Beach Ordinance was passed in response to the DOE 303 (d) listing, and then vetted by a Citizen Task Force; after the Watershed Acquisition & Preservation Ordinance was adopted; after the City had beefed up its controversial Surface & Stormwater Utilility, I thought we were on a roll! And in the right direction, too. Silly me!

Speaking of a roll, Dr. Bruce Roll looked like he was about to achieve some really good things for county wide water planning with the WRIA -1 program, and with helping preserve Lake Whatcom, as the new head of the County's new Water Resources Division - which is now essentially defunct. Didn't happen. Not even close, and now Dr. Roll has rolled on.

But, you know these 'Integrated Ideas' were worth a try then. And, even now, many of the concepts still remain valid. But, with far more development around the Lake Whatcom now, than existed in 2001, our problem has gotten much worse.

Here's my e-mail memo to Pete, sent 11/5/2001:
To: Kremen_Pete
From: John Watts
Subject: Integrated Ideas - A Bold Stroke


Here is a document I have prepared for your review before our meeting tomorrow at 2 PM.
It may be possible to accomplish meaningful change without a moratorium, however a moratorium would be a sure method to get all the parties to the table and a deadline set for instituting changes. Care must be taken in how we use this information; however planting the seeds of how multiple objectives might be accomplished should also demonstrate a clear grasp of how the following three major elements are inter-related:

1. Reservoir watershed protection
2. Joint county/city regional planning
3. Comprehensive TDR program [Transfer of Development Rights]

Since all three of these elements are widely considered as highly desirable, a way can probably be found to make them happen together for the obvious synergies involved. One comprehensive "win-win-win" solution would seem preferable to three separate, ongoing battles, each of which is likely to not be as effective as an integrated plan.

Anyway, this is stuff to think about and talk about in seeking to find a way that such a plan might be promoted to enhance its chances of success - to everyone's mutual benefit, including future generations. The time now seems propitious for such a bold, integrated stroke, because, in the end it will save money and be much more effective. However, such a bold plan will likely be stillborn without broad public support. To encourage this to happen, perhaps something along the lines of the scenario outlined, following, might be considered.

Although the primary objective is to protect the Reservoir 'once and for all', the other two objectives are also very desirable on their own.

This year the Comprehensive Plans for County & City will be updated, including the Land Use Elements, always of major interest. What better time to institute true joint planning?

The County's TDR program has also languished, largely due to the City's inability to adequately address its responsibility for providing receiving areas for TDRs from the watershed.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to rectify all three situations, because they are already so inherently inter-related.
Granted, such a bold plan will be tough to implement, but wouldn't the public prefer we work hard on something like this together than continue to be ineffective in disjointed efforts?

Every challenge can also be viewed as an opportunity, and this is surely a golden one!
I am excited about seeing major progress happen around these issues, and will pledge my strong, ongoing support to any such efforts.

Thanks for taking the time to read these thoughts in preparation for our meeting tomorrow.

Growing concerns about Lake Whatcom, which, even now, are not being adequately addressed, result from years of incremental misuse, ignorance of the cumulative effects of these misuses, and the inertia of short-term thinking in the surrounding watershed. To arrest our habit of careless practices and to institutionalize a long-term preservation program for this resource will require building and maintaining broad public awareness of the factual situation, and a commitment to change our collective habits and practices in a common sense, but comprehensive way.

It will take time to achieve the education and effect the changes necessary to ensure long-term protection of this valuable reservoir. To allow this time, and concurrently, relieve continuing development pressures in this sensitive watershed, many have become convinced that an unusual and dramatic step must be taken now. This will require the support of both the populace and the elected officials in the City of Bellingham and the rest of Whatcom County.

The step that might be necessary now, is an immediate moratorium on all new development within the Lake Whatcom RESERVOIR Watershed. One might call this "Operation R", with the slogan "C-ME-ROAR! [Citizens’ Massive Effort to Reclaim Our Ailing Reservoir] It will need to be a truly massive effort, one not lightly undertaken without regard to the obstacles to be overcome in a fair, yet responsible manner.

Broadly outlined, Operation R will likely need to include several key elements if it is to succeed, as it must:

1. A Resolution adopted by the Whatcom County Council, which clearly states the objectives and their legal rationale. (What, Who, Where, When, Why & How)

2. A similar Resolution adopted by the Bellingham City Council, preferably as a jointly agreed-to statement of policy.

3. A massive and persistent demonstration of public support for these measures, to enable their passage by elected officials. Drafting a public initiative that gives citizens the broad choice of either increasing dramatically might best facilitate this or more modestly, the level of effort government should be putting into protecting the Reservoir.

4. An Emergency Order or Joint Ordinance adopted by City & County, which triggers a watershed wide temporary moratorium on development.

5. A conditioning period to allow input from stakeholders to provide reasonable flexibility and fairness, while preserving and strengthening the moratorium’s intent and its chances of succeeding, by allowing necessary data to be gathered and analyzed, and necessary changes made in the interest of permanent overall watershed protection. Perhaps voting on the public initiative could culminate this phase.

6. Adoption of a final Emergency Order or Joint Ordinance by City & County

7. Pursuit of the steps deemed necessary and essential to rectify current regulations and responsibilities so as to ensure permanent changes are made for the public’s long-term benefit. County & City government, using the results of the public vote as a broad guide, would work out these steps jointly.

8. Consideration of extending, or lifting the moratorium once specific goals are met and agreed to programs instituted.

Expert legal advice must be obtained early and incorporated into these plans before proceeding further. It is absolutely imperative that this action is handled carefully, and by the book if it is to withstand anticipated legal challenges. Failure at this task could cost the program's success, or worse, set back or severely discourage future such efforts.
The primary legal obstacles will likely be "due process" and, property rights, or "takings" law. Both can attract big money interests, and are not to be trifled with.

However, the primary overall obstacle is attaining the requisite level of knowledge and understanding by elected officials to enable them to use their individual and collective political will to make the necessary difficult decisions in the long-term best interests of the public. It will take courage to decide to make meaningful change, and perseverance to determine what changes must be made, and to implement them effectively.

One should not under-estimate the massive effort that will be required to affect the type of meaningful change necessary to protect this Reservoir. Thus, a period of at least 3 years, extendable to 5 years might be needed. This period of time must be used to diligently pursue several accomplishments, possibly including any or all of (but not limited to) the following:

o Complete the DOE "TMDL" Study.

o Perform preliminary modeling of the watershed.

o Implementation of a permanent, special Lake Whatcom Reservoir Watershed Management District (LWRWMD), with authority to enforce rules and levy fees to support itself.

o Incorporation of Water District 10 responsibilities into the City of Bellingham Public Works Department.

o Comprehensive Plan amendments (both City & County) to enable a comprehensive Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program to permanently remove development from the watershed and lower its potential density. Consider extending these transfers to UGAs in City and other UGAs in other towns in the county.

o Establishing adequate funding mechanisms to enable preservation of buffers and compensate property owners for TDRs. Government should consider kick-starting this program by acting as banker/broker to facilitate it, and demonstrating its features. By re-selling TDRs, government can direct where the TDR receiving areas need to be and recover its costs, plus opt to reinvest proceeds like a revolving fund.

o Consideration of imposing a special, watershed-wide, 1% Real Estate Transfer Fee on both buyers and sellers to at least partially fund the LWRWMD, and to ensure that owners are aware of their special responsibility to protect the Reservoir.

o Consider assigning the Reservoir water supply an initial "intrinsic value" to instill awareness of it’s worth. A rate of $.025 per CCF was previously applied to G-P Industrial water to pay for a portion of the costs of water supply protection. If such a surcharge were extended to other customers this could raise about $400 per day or $140,000 per year, at current usage rates.

o Consider mandating that DNR and private forestry interests implement more stringent harvesting practices, commensurate with Reservoir protection. Some compensation will likely be required, perhaps from revenue sources such as RETFs, water surcharges, watershed acquisition funds and other sources, including exchanges of value, such as CO2 sequestration mitigation, user fees and the like.

o Consider rescinding the Urban Growth Area status currently in effect for Geneva and being considered for Sudden Valley. Move these UGAs entirely out of he watershed.

o Consider revising downward the maximum capacities currently allowed in the City’s agreement with WD 10 to supply water and sewer services.

o Consider mandatory requirements prohibiting new wells & septic systems in the watershed, and phasing out existing facilities deemed operationally or environmentally unsatisfactory.

o Implementation of watershed wide storm-water abatement, preferably using non-structural Best Management Practice (BMPs), like naturally vegetated buffers, conservation easements and other land. Use Flood Tax, or other suitable funding sources to be determined.

o Consider a total ban on pesticides. This is common practice in water supply reservoirs elsewhere.

o Consider a total ban on 2-stroke engines & aircraft. This is common practice in water supply reservoirs elsewhere.

o Consider additional protection of City & WD10 water intakes and essential related facilities from terrorist attacks, inadvertent spills or physical damage. This is common practice in water supply reservoirs elsewhere. Consider using impact fees to set up and maintain this funding.

o Perform water balance modeling to determine impacts of lower diversion water and lower usage resulting from G-P’s closure. A number of such scenarios need to be considered in advance of need, to enable responsible officials to act appropriately when necessary, including issuing PSAs, warning residents and users of important changes.

o Determine preliminary costs and feasibility of relocating City water intake to Basin 3 and possibly consolidating with WD10 water intake. Consider using impact fees to set up and maintain this funding.

o Determine potential future water customers and use from this Reservoir, including Lynden, the Lummi Nation and future growth or extensions of service. Factor this information into future capital needs and water management decisions.

o Determine future water demands and minimum raw water purity levels that would necessitate additional treatment and related facilities, and estimate these costs. Consider imposing impact fees to fully fund this future expense incrementally over time, rather than a single large bond issue.

o Determine DOE-required water quality levels (by sub-basin) necessary to ensure Lake Whatcom Reservoir remains fishable & swim-able in all three basins.

o Determine DFW-required water quality level and habitat restoration required (by stream) enabling sustainable, natural reproduction of native fish species.

o Develop & use education programs to help the public understand why these steps are necessary and/or desirable.

o Discourage further real estate advertising campaigns that promote new development in this watershed, particularly since this area has become a widely accepted, good place to live and is being actively promoted as desired "trophy home" area.

o Discourage AIA members from identifying their designer homes as being "at Lake Whatcom".

o Change Chamber of Commerce, Convention & Visitors Bureau and other tourism brochures, flyers and promotions as necessary to reflect that Lake Whatcom is actually a public water supply reservoir.

o Impose stricter limits on allowing boaters from outside the City or County to use launching facilities. Increase user fees to recover costs, discourage over-use and pay for cost of boater kits and other instructional material and enforcement.

o Beef up on-water patrols by Sheriff’s Dept to enforce boating rules. Consider augmenting by volunteer lake stewards.

o Prohibit or severely limit new piers, docks and floats. Specify what materials can be used.

o Update the City’s aerial photography of the watershed to monitor development and impervious area growth. Use this in enforcement activities. Extend this practice into County areas.

o Consider turning over from County to City, those services needed in this watershed, which might benefit from this consolidation, consistent with managing a special water supply district. For example, Permitting, planning, public works roads and utilities, fire, police and EMS services. Consider relaxing existing road standards to assist environmental protection of the reservoir.

o Consider this program as a unique & ideal launching platform to create better regional planning & cooperation, thereby assisting the attraction of progressive new employers and facilitating "smart growth" practices.

o Apply for special assistance (legal, technical & monetary) from Federal and State agencies in implementing this plan and its elements.

o Use the leverage of County & City owned TDRs to encourage desirable development per regional planning guidelines.

o Assume the challenge and responsibility of becoming a model community, daring to make hard decisions in the interest of future prosperity & human and environmental health.

o Invite an international regional planning & urban design competition to take full advantage of modern expert advice and proven, cost-effective concepts.

o Replace the negative perceptions of Whatcom County as being relatively poor and lagging in economic vitality with a daring vision which will enable this to meaningfully change for the better over time.

o Capitalize on the energy, intelligence and potential already present in this community to effect as many of these changes as possible.

o Establish a joint agency with the single-source responsibility to facilitate and oversee this program to its logical conclusion. Encourage and facilitate joint city/county planning & financing to develop and implement regional plans.

o Broadly advertise our intentions and their potential, long-term beneficial impacts, and keep the public involved with updates of progress and obstacles, to enable buy-in and support to allow the program to succeed. Solicit and use volunteer efforts to the extent possible

o Understand that whatever we collectively decide do is motivated primarily by the fact that we recognize a clean, sustainable water supply is absolutely essential to our future growth & wellbeing.

o Consider selling bottled "Whatcom Reservoir Water" to help advertise and finance these efforts.