Friday, July 31, 2009

Lake Whatcom: How Does Your Garden Grow?

"Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."
- attributed to Mark Twain

“It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
- Winston Churchill


Like most gardens, Mistress Mary's grew with the help of nutrients and sunshine.
But, weeds also grow with this kind of help.
And, the broadest definition of 'weed', is a plant that is unwanted or unwelcome in a place.
So it is with Lake Whatcom.

Algae are plant-like organisms with an affinity for water, especially water that has the main plant nutrients -Phosphorus, Nitrogen and Potassium- and sufficient sunlight to sustain photosynthesis.
More nutrients and sunlight usually means more rapid growth.
Bingo! Guess what's happening in our water supply reservoir?

Many residents and water rate-payers probably received an urgent automated phone message from our Mayor very recently, which advised of mandatory water use restrictions.
That's not the type of call we like, but it has become necessary, as it has several times in the past and will likely happen in the future.
One only hopes that it doesn't happen often, but don't bet against it.
Here's another report on this from today's Crosscut:

Not long ago some people noticed that the City's website had posted two announcements that seemed mutually incompatible.
One warned of increased algae levels and the possibility of future restrictions, like we now have.
The other reported that the City had received yet another award of excellence for its quality of drinking water.
In fact, Bellingham was one of only 16 cities in the US that had earned this particular honor for 10 years in a row!
That is truly commendable, whether algae is a potential threat or not!

That algae IS a serious threat -as our recent restriction proves- makes the City's achievement award even more commendable
Not to minimize the threat, mind you, but to emphasize the extra effort and expense necessary on an ongoing basis to even 'tread water' in our increasingly undersized and obsolescent water treatment plant.
The algae clogging the filters is a sure sign of nothing but increasing trouble that won't be easy or cheap to rectify.
Because inadequate treatment is unacceptable, the City must take steps to remedy this situation, and every water rate-payer will have be bear their fair share of the expense, both capital and operating.
But, that is not all.
We will eventually learn to accept drinking water with poorer taste, odor and residual impurities, too.

The City does have choices in the steps it can take.
One of the better choices is to maintain a pure raw water supply; in other words a fairly pristine Lake Whatcom.
The USEPA & WA State Dept of Ecology define this as the first line of defense, or barrier against pollution.
But, with ever increasing development growth and lake use, that option has steadily diminished, as it still is.

Other options are very likely to be much more expensive and less effective.
Like water treatment for example.
We humans know how to make pure water out of seawater, and even recycled human waste, as the Astronauts have proven!
Want to pay for that?
Hey, did you think there was a big water spigot up there in space?

Another option is simple conservation, which won't prevent the water quality and quantity problem from happening, but will delay it substantially.
A related option is to require water meters, as the City has recently gotten serious about. [see earlier blog on Water/Sewer]
Meters would encourage conservation, but mainly would assess water costs much more fairly, based on actual usage.
You don't see everyone paying the same amount for gasoline, do you?
That depends on how many gallons you use each month!
Why not water?

Maybe rather than complaining about the 'mixed message' that some have interpreted the City's website to make, we should see the conflict between short term expectations and long term adverse trends.
The City has managed to make the best out of what hand is has been dealt by past practices, many of which are outside its direct control.
Ten years ago, when I first got involved with local politics and trying to preserve Lake Whatcom, the City of Bellingham comprised about 2% of this 30,000-plus acre watershed, with the unincorporated areas of Whatcom County accounting for 96% and Skagit County the rest.
Get that picture?

Since then, various measures have been adopted, tried or financed by various jurisdictions, the sum total of which can only be termed as INEFFECTIVE.
This is the kind of game where one does not get credit for effort, actions or talk, but RESULTS.
And the kind of results that are necessary are not being seen.

Please understand that I am not defending or attacking the City or any other jurisdiction.
I am merely reporting the facts, warts and all.

Many of the actions taken or now being considered are commendable, including the City' pushing its water treatment plant to ever higher capacities and limits.
In a real sense, the water situation can be directly compared to a human health scenario, where fortunate people are healthy and free of conditions or diseases that put them at undue risk.
Others are not so fortunate, but you may never know it until too late.
Take folks with diabetes; think that puts them at higher risk by making them susceptible to all manner of threats?
You better, because it does -whether you suspect that or not!

In a similar way, the City has coped with its growing algae problem, until it is no longer treated as something that isn't discussed widely, like an embarrassing relative.
That time is obviously coming to an end.
As it ought to if we are to take the steps that have been wiser all along, but are just now becoming too big to ignore with impunity.

Previous blogs have also touched on the gross lack of water planning in Whatcom County [WRIA], and the State of Washington in general -where the Doe continues to hand out well permits for water that does not exist!
What is wrong with this picture?

As has been said, 'denial is not just a river in Egypt'.
And, speaking of Egypt, the vast majority of its 83 million people either live in the Nile Valley or Delta, or very close to the Suez Canal -about 5% of its total land area.