Thursday, August 9, 2007

Public Water Supply Management 101: A Short Primer and Call to Action for Newcomers and the Newly Involved

A Whatcom Watch Article: October-November 2003

BIO: John Watts currently serves on the Bellingham City Council as the Ward 3 representative. A retired chemical engineer and businessman, John has lived and worked in eight different states and traveled extensively, both within the U.S. and internationally, and writes from that perspective. John served for three years as chair of the Bellingham City Council’s Lake Whatcom Watershed Committee. In this capacity, he also chaired the Citizens’ Task Force, which was established to review methods by which the Silver Beach Ordinance could be changed to add flexibility and fairness to this measure, without sacrificing its intended effectiveness.
Having sufficient water of good quality to drink has been considered essential since human history was first recorded. Certainly, no one can disagree that this statement is true, but it’s important to keep this in mind for later reference.

In the U.S., about 30 percent of our population receives its drinking water from surface sources, like streams, lakes and protected reservoirs, but most people get their water from wells and underground aquifers, which are replenished by groundwater, filtering and cleansing itself through the earth.

Unprotected surface water sources are inherently more vulnerable to contamination, especially from human impacts, typically referred to simply as ‘development.’ That is why most cities (in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world), that depend upon surface water for their public supply have almost universally taken thoughtful, and sometimes drastic, steps to protect their reservoirs.

Examples abound, but on the West Coast these prudent cities include Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, just to name a few. All of these cities had the foresight many years ago to implement and institutionalize programs to protect their essential water supplies in the interest of public health and responsible long-term economics.

Why Isn’t Lake Whatcom A Protected Reservoir, Too?

Good question! Even though common sense dictates that protecting our water supply is critically important, there are always temptations and pressures to cut corners and delay taking those measures that are known to be the most effective and efficient. If communities don’t already have strict rules of protection in place, it’s difficult to initiate truly effective programs until it is too late. Unfortunately, this is the situation now being faced by Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham regarding the Lake Whatcom Reservoir.

Unfortunately for us, Lake Whatcom was “discovered” by our descendents over 150 years ago—during a time when there appeared to be limitless natural resources. Most of the trees had been cut in the watershed, and most of Silver Beach platted, before the lake even became the city’s official water source. This contrast with other protected reservoirs should not be used as an excuse to give up in our protection efforts, but instead as a challenge to our ingenuity.

Even today, here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s easy to assume that water is in such abundance that allowing a little degradation and waste here and there will not hurt; that Mother Nature will somehow take care of things and restore our water quality and supply enough to last for our future needs. That type of thinking is erroneous and shortsighted indeed!

Lake Whatcom and its larger sibling, Lake Chelan, are unique, largely pristine lakes of exceptional purity—truly rarities in nature. In fact, both lakes are so pure that neither has adequate defense mechanisms to counter pollution from runoff, meaning they are susceptible to steady degradation, which is irreversible. While all lakes naturally degrade over time, this generally takes thousands of years to occur. Lake Whatcom is showing clear signs of this happening in just a few decades. That’s a clear sign there is a problem!

Why should we worry about premature degradation of Lake Whatcom? Two answers come to mind very quickly—our children and our pocketbooks! Taking care of our reservoir also means taking care of our kids and others who will eventually come here to live. Taking care of our pocketbooks means we won’t have to pay for building additional, expensive water treatment facilities to clean up dirtier water so we can drink it.

Finding ‘other’ sources of water—as some suggest—is simply out of the question because it is not legally available to us and the costs of bringing it here would be prohibitive anyway. That leaves us the choice of taking care of what we have—the Lake Whatcom reservoir! One valuable legacy we can leave our kids is to take care of our water. If we fail in this, their legacy will be to clean up our mess, at their expense.

The Role of Government Agencies

Often people think that problems like protecting our water are the job of governmental agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Ecology, the Department of Health or the Department of Fish and Wildlife. This is true to an extent, however, these agencies rarely act forcefully until a real problem has already occurred, when it’s too late to prevent it. These agencies can become much more effective when local communities, like us, take the lead in establishing preventative programs with teeth in them. Under these circumstances, agencies can shine in helping to enforce adopted regulations and educating and informing the public.

So, we can’t really blame government agencies for our failure to impose reasonable rules upon ourselves. As Pogo said “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” Until local governments like Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham decide to take stronger action to protect our reservoir in perpetuity, we can’t expect much timely help from others.

The Problem, Clearly Stated

This brings us to our current situation: what to do about Lake Whatcom? The water in the lake actually belongs to the citizens of the state of Washington. Yet, strangely, this water is assigned no intrinsic value of its own—zero! When the city of Bellingham or other water purveyors sell this water, they are only allowed to charge for the actual costs of treating it, not the cost of the water itself – which, of course, is zero anyway. Following this logic, just how valuable can our water be if we assign it no tangible value?

This is a paradox almost beyond comprehension, yet by our actions—or non-actions—we seem to verify the notion that we value our water mostly as lip service to an idea, not as the irreplaceable resource that it is! Only ‘we,’ the public, can change this situation for the better. We can do so by demanding that our elected officials put into place the kind of permanent restrictions befitting our reservoir, understanding that these measures must be enacted carefully, reasonably and fairly if they are to withstand the inevitable tests of time and legal challenge.

This kind of no-nonsense direction from the public is essential if efforts to effect lasting change are to be successful. Observations over the years seem to confirm that most politicians and bureaucrats will tend to do as little as possible unless they are given strong, sustained direction from the public they serve. Quick fixes sound nice, but rarely become effective long-term solutions, which means the public must stay focused on seeing necessary changes actually made and implemented over time. Because elected officials come and go with some frequency, and their individual understandings and priorities vary, only constant public involvement can be relied upon to produce the desired outcomes.

Bottom line: If citizens want to leave a legacy of a pure and protected water supply, they must shoulder the responsibility of making this happen themselves!

Past, Present and Future

Past actions taken on Lake Whatcom generally fit into three categories, all at public cost:

• Monitoring of the source water [untreated]

• Enhancing water treatment facilities [filtration plant, chlorination, storage, distribution]

• Periodic reporting on drinking water [restrictions, quality advisories, public relations]

Taken together, these actions represent a ‘multiple barrier’ approach to protecting human health, as mandated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act and Amendments. Each of these barriers adds its own layer of protection, but the one that is most effective, and least costly, is the first one—a clean water supply source.

Of course, should our source water become increasingly contaminated, drinkable water can still be produced, though it won’t taste or smell as good, or be as healthy for human consumption. While it is true that technology can address this type of problem, this comes at a very high additional cost. For example, the U.S. Navy uses desalination methods (boiling and condensing) to produce potable water from seawater, and NASA employs advanced technology to enable astronauts to reuse their own body wastes for drinking purposes. These are proven technologies, but they are very expensive to acquire and to operate. So it is with any enhanced water treatment facilities the city of Bellingham would need to build and operate if the water in Lake Whatcom degrades sufficiently. It’s not a question of whether this will happen, but when! That’s why taking strong protective action now will pay off big-time in the future.

A Breakthrough in Thinking

A milestone worth noting was the Joint Resolution adopted in 1992 by the Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council, which officially recognized for the first time the need for more adequate reservoir protections. After almost 90 years since becoming a city, it seems we finally woke up to some rather obvious realities! If one subscribes to the belief that 50 percent of a cure is the recognition that there is actually a problem, we are a little over halfway there now. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another five generations to complete this task, because we don’t have that long to wait!

The 1992 Joint Resolution, although it lacked real teeth, did serve its purpose of establishing a public policy that emphasizes prevention over treatment, which if backed up by strong measures like enforceable ordinances will begin to make a difference in this watershed. It was also the first time the name “Reservoir” was used to denote the primary and highest use of Lake Whatcom. That is also helpful to continued protection efforts.

More information on the 1992 Joint Resolution and the subsequently adopted 21 Goal Statements is readily available from the WSU Cooperative Extension Web site at:

Progress During the Last Five Years

At the above Web site is also listed “A Brief Chronology of Lake Whatcom Management Program” that will interest new readers. This chronology begins in 1990 and ends in 2000. In 1999, three specific priorities were identified for action; land use, watershed ownership and stormwater management.

Since that time, the city of Bellingham has taken some strong steps toward arresting the impacts of development in its small portion of this watershed, including:

• The 2000 adoption of a Land-Use Ordinance as an immediate management response to the DOE 303d listing of the lake as an impaired waterbody. This controversial measure effectively addressed four critical land use parameters: density, allowed uses, impervious surface coverage and seasonal construction limits. It was also thoroughly conditioned by a Citizens’ Task Force, which added provisions for fairness and flexibility in addition to enhancing its efficacy. Although it technically applies to only 2 percent of the watershed, it was unanimously decided to extend its provisions outside the city limits as well on an advisory basis.

• The adoption, in 2000, of a Watershed Acquisition Ordinance, which funds watershed property preservation efforts, using a $5 per month surcharge on monthly water rates. This measure was stimulated by property transfer provisions of the Land-Use Ordinance, and strongly buttressed by the public support generated by an earlier public initiative with the same purpose. To date, nearly 900 acres have been purchased or preserved, using science-based criteria developed by citizens with city and county assistance.

• The adoption in 2001 of a more comprehensive Surface and Stormwater Utility, funded by new utility rates assessed in proportion to actual impervious surface area. Also controversial, these rates allow the city to meet federal and state mandates, which require municipalities to assume perpetual responsibility for their runoff, and to meet water quality standards in addition to preventing flooding and erosion.

Other steps have also been taken, such as the Water Source Protection Plan adopted administratively in 2000, which must be updated by 2006, and other ongoing efforts within the Lake Whatcom Management Program that focused on specific goals.

The county and other agencies have also taken positive steps—although sometimes this has required great coaxing. Some examples include the new county development standards that are about to become official, the county’s interim downzone of the watershed and the state Department of Natural Resources landscape plan.

What’s Next?

Future plans and actions for protecting the Lake Whatcom Reservoir will be driven by demands from elected officials, their professional staff and the public—and not necessarily in that order. The efforts being taken to date are substantial, but probably inadequate to insure the future health of our reservoir. The direction we take will largely depend upon public demand, and our ability to provide the necessary funding and staff for establishing a permanent mechanism charged with the care of our reservoir. What form this may take has yet to be determined, but in the end, it will be the public that decides what our legacy will be regarding Lake Whatcom. Let’s get on with it! §