Saturday, August 11, 2007

Water Source Protection Plan: Shelf Art or Management Tool?

The City of Bellingham was required by the Washington State Department of Health [DOH] to prepare a Water Source Protection Plan to help protect Lake Whatcom. This task was completed and issued -administratively- in April, 2000, and requires updating every six years thereafter. The City Council was never asked to review or adopt this Water Source Protection Plan, even though its preparation cost tens of thousands of dollars and required many hours of staff time. But, before the final draft was issued, both Whatcom County and Water District 10 were allowed to review this document, and delete sections they did not want in it! What is wrong with that picture? The City does the work on its nickel, allows other jurisdictions to gut the parts they don't like, and the document is simply issued - without City Council review or approval!

I believe this is a matter that the Council -and citizens- should be concerned about, because the WSPP represents a health mandated chance to set policy on a resource that has been one of the City's top priorities! The document that was issued does contain much valuable information that is useful, but the City missed out on having a much stronger WSPP that could also become a policy statement.

So, what happened in 2006, when the Water Source Protection Plan was scheduled for its six-year revision? Nothing. Not even the review and revision that the original plan clearly stated was to be accomplished! That time the Council caught it, and advised the administration that a full review and revision was expected. Next Wednesday, August 15, the Council will hold a special evening work session [6 to 8 PM] at which the Public Works Dept will present its proposed new WSPP. Since there has been no advance distribution of information for Council or public review, it is impossible to know what the PW preentation will entail. Perhaps, all will be revealed that was missing from the first Water Source Protection Plan, but that is doubtful.

Now, six years later -almost seven- we do know that our water quality situation has gotten worse, because of unprecedented new development that has happened over that time. If we could go back in time and establish the Water Source Protection Plan we needed then, would it have made any difference? Maybe not, but at least we would have had a chance!
Stay tuned to see the next exciting episode. Will we set a limit on impervious cover in the Lake Whatcom watershed? If so, will we enforce it?
Here is a Herald Guest Column from March 9, 2002, entitled 'A Guide to Lake Whatcom Management ' which remains a potentially important tool to help us understand the causes of water degradation and how to set limits on them:

A recent publication from the Center for Watershed Protection [Watershed Protection Techniques, Vol. 3, No. 4, December 2001, pages 797-812] offers some timely and helpful advice for those concerned with protecting public water supplies. The referenced article reviews the current state of watershed practice in reservoirs, including some unique concerns facing reservoir managers, and summarizes a detailed survey of trends in watershed treatment practices used to protect 22 large water supply reservoirs in the U.S. - including our own Lake Whatcom. It concludes by recommending ways that watershed practices can be improved to meet ever-tighter drinking water standards, including the use of a Source Water Assessment Program to better integrate them into local watershed planning.

Impacts from watershed development on surface water supplies are a major concern, contributing heavily to such problems as: disinfection by-products; turbidity; pathogens (such as crytosporidium, giardia, and fecal coliforms); organic and inorganic chemicals (nutrients, pesticides, metals) and algae (which influences the taste and odor of drinking water). All of these impacts increase both treatment costs and the likelihood of public health alerts. Urban development also increases the risk of spills, leaks and accidents happening in the reservoir or its surrounding watershed.

What can be done to prevent these problems? Under the Safe Drinking Water Act - 1996 Amendments, each community must conduct a Source Water Assessment Program and use it to implement a Source Water Protection Plan. The survey results given are also helpful in comparing the effectiveness of various practices used in other reservoirs. For example, most localities rely upon a progressively stringent series of ordinances, regulations and zoning actions adopted over several decades, yet only 10 percent have instituted comprehensive watershed planning. This serious deficiency is attributed partly to the difficulty in coordinating planning efforts among multiple jurisdictions, and partly because of the historical disconnect between the water utilities responsible for meeting drinking water standards and the local government(s) responsible for regulating land-use change in the watershed.

The primary tools used in watershed planning and management are zoning, land conservation, shoreline/stream buffers and stewardship, with the latter encompassing education, spill response, monitoring and reservoir restrictions (90 percent prohibit swimming and use of gasoline engines).

Given the fact that water supplies have traditionally been heavily regulated due to public health concerns and increasingly stringent drinking water standards, it is surprising that only 10 percent of the reservoir watersheds studied have developed comprehensive watershed plans. Even more surprising is the finding that, despite anticipated future development in many watersheds, none have established a maximum upper limit on future development - the single worst enemy of watershed protection.

Other, typical watershed problems include concerns over long-term maintenance of storm water practices, septic systems and buffers, as well as failures in actually implementing practices in the field. The cumulative impact of inadequate staffing, waivers, infrequent inspections, poor design standards and limited enforcement all compromise the overall effectiveness of such programs, as does the lack of actual performance data.

While state and federal regulators clearly endorse a watershed approach for developing SWPPs, promoting stakeholder involvement and encouraging intergovernmental partnerships, they do not mandate that the cumulative impact of current or future watershed development be explicitly considered in the planning process. As a consequence, it is unlikely that many water providers will be able to develop fully effective watershed land-use plans, because both providers and regulators are reluctant to interfere with the land-use prerogatives of local governments.

Two specific recommendations are offered:

• Each SWAP should measure current watershed impervious cover, and forecast the amount of new impervious cover to be created over the next 20 to 30 years. If current or future impervious cover is expected to exceed 5 percent in the watershed, communities should adopt more stringent treatment practices for new development.

• If impervious cover is expected to exceed 10 percent in a watershed, then nine critical elements need inclusion in the SWPP: Watershed planning and management, watershed zoning, land conservation, shoreline and tributary buffers, better site design, erosion and sediment control, storm water treatment practices, wastewater management and watershed stewardship.

The referenced publication can be ordered online at Summaries are available at the City Council office.