Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lake Whatcom: A Convergence of 3 Issues

Those good folks who have long hoped for actions that might lead to a long-term solution toward preserving our drinking water source now have reason for renewed hope!
That said, while initiatives now under consideration have promise, they are coming forward only after considerable delay during which water degradation has continued at an accelerating pace.
But, often that is the way significant changes come about; after things get discernibly worse and new representatives are elected that reflect widespread community concern.

Three developments now under active consideration have as their focus the protection of our Reservoir.
[To those still in denial, get used to the idea that Lake Whatcom represents the water supply source for half of Whatcom County, and that the name 'Reservoir' fits it by definition]

As someone who has focused on, studied and participated in policies and programs concerned with Lake Whatcom, I strongly welcome each of the three issues which form the subject of this posting, which are:

• The issuance of the Department of Ecology's [DOE] TMDL Study [Total Maximum Daily Load]

• The proposed consolidation of Water & Sewer services between the City of Bellingham [COB] and the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District [LWW&SD]

• The proposed Reconveyance of Department of Natural Resources [DNR] forest lands [over 8,000 acres] to Whatcom County for use in a Public Park Plan.

While none of these issues & proposals represent any sort of 'Silver Bullet', all can -or could- become aids to important steps in the direction of long-term, effective Watershed protection.

Yesterday, I was asked to comment on each of these three issues by an involved citizen, which I did over the phone.
I greatly appreciated that call because it tangibly demonstrated a new wave of interested support for preserving Lake Whatcom using every credible means available.
It is so essential to have more and more citizens aware and involved, as well as to have them interested in the history of recent efforts.
Knowing what works and what doesn't work so well means that 'wheels' don't need to be reinvented so often, and that's working smart.

So, here's a synopsis of my views on each of these 3 subjects - in their overall order of importance:

• DOE TMDL - Believe it! It has taken 10 years for this report to issue, but it does provide a solid scientific backing for taking the essential local actions that will be required. Despite The legal and political cover the TMDL provides, the hard part lies ahead, as it always has. The DOE had up to 15 years to issue the TMDL, so thank goodness it only took them 10! Unfortunately, the explosive new growth during those 10 years in the Lake Whatcom Watershed has greatly exacerbated the situation we must now face. We know that from the monitoring done before and during that period. No one should have the illusion that reducing the Phosphorus load going into Lake Whatcom daily will be easy. It will take time and resources to even slow down and stop even accelerating the rate of pollutants entering the Reservoir via each sub-watershed and stream. After that, there will be more hard work to do in actually reversing the pollutant load. I don't envy those in office this task! That is why concerned citizens are so important. Do not let inertia or delaying tactics make this problem worse! Time is not on our side.

• Consolidation of Water & Sewer Services - I believe this can be a strong step in the right direction. Any analysis of Pros & Cons objectively taken will likely demonstrate substantial economic, environmental and social advantages that benefit the community as a whole. It has taken a long time to arrive at serious consideration of this consolidation, but it seems to be an idea who's time has come. Thanks to the last City elections, we now have a Mayor and Council who are willing to undertake bold new actions that can help protect as well as stabilize service rates fairly. Most Watershed Protection Manuals I've read advocate a single responsibility in charge of these services, especially around a critically valuable and sensitive watershed.
Should this happen, it should not be viewed as a universal panacea, but as a way to gain more reliable services and consistency in offering services, as well as more equity among rate-payers.

• Reconveyance of DNR Forests to Whatcom County for Parks - I still must be convinced that this will be a better idea than what we have now. It sounds good -almost too good to be true! My instincts tell me to be very careful about approving this proposal, despite the vocal proponents - many of whom are quite credible. But, without more clearly communicated factual information to assess, I must remain a skeptic. It seems to me that this proposal may promise more than it can reasonably deliver, and that -at best- threats to Lake Whatcom water quality are no worse than they are now under State DNR control.
The DOE TMDL seems to imply the same conclusion, but maybe I'm wrong about that. This issue has a long history, some of which has been clouded in secrecy -intentionally or unintentionally. That worries me and makes me suspicious of motives.

I have written several blogs on this subject, since first airing it last September as a potential October 'Surprise' tactic during local elections. That tactic undoubtedly initiated my skepticism, and I tended to view the idea as someone's multiplex agenda masquerading as a benefit to Lake Whatcom. Since then, I have obtained more information, but certainly not enough to completely assuage my skepticism.

These constitute the root of my concerns:
1. Costs and their fuzziness, including the substantial loss of DNR revenues from logging
2. Suitability of new uses to be promoted or allowed within the watershed
3. Sustainability issues with County oversight instead of State predictability
4. Unintentional -or hidden- consequences involving land use that may exacerbate the Reservoir's problems
5. Trustworthiness of the County Administration, which continues stonewalling tactics, including stacking an appointed advisory committee with advocates.
6. DNR's real motives, like eliminating the 'Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan'

In short, there are a raft of unanswered questions, which ought to be answered before any version of this proposal is approved.

To sum up:

- The DOE TMDL is critically important as it represents a scientific basis for local governments -and citizens- to make decisions on how to implement changes to development standards and practices, as well as life-style changes necessary to preserve the water quality in our Municipal Water Supply Reservoir.

- The consolidation of water & sewer services within the Lake Whatcom Reservoir represents a very good idea, with multiple potential benefits to citizens and rate-payers alike, that will accrue far into the future.

- The DNR Reconveyance Scheme carries the promise of more watershed protection, but not the certainty of it. Considerably more up-front due diligence is required before this Parks Plan is ripe for approval.
From this observer's present standpoint, the BEST watershed protection we can expect from this proposal is roughly equivalent to what we have now!
What this says to me is that there must be other powerful motivations for this to happen besides protecting Lake Whatcom.
Sorry, but Missouri Mule attitudes can be valuable at times.

Just 'show me'!