Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board Replaced by New Board

Timeline for Property Purchases Around Lake Whatcom

by Bill McCallum

In the spring, three local residents — Marian Beddill, Tim Paxton and Larry Williams calling themselves The Initiative Group — begin meeting to explore ways to protect the city’s drinking water. Gathering with many individuals over the year resulted in a proposed fee on water rates.

March  The Initiative Group files the text of an initiative with the city attorney and the Whatcom County auditor to protect Lake Whatcom drinking water. The initiative would have imposed a surcharge up to $12 per month on water rates to purchase property around Lake Whatcom. The city did not object to the ballot title, Drinking Water Initiative (Proposition One).

April  Volunteers begin gathering signatures on initiative petitions.

July  On 7/21, the initiative is certified for the general election ballot by the Whatcom County auditor.

Sept.  On 9/13, the City Council votes 4-2, Louise Bjornson and Gene Knutson opposed, Bob Ryan excused, to ask a Superior Court judge to determine the validy of the initiative. The city claimed that they were the only ones that had the authority to protect the drinking water. The council  votes to change the name of the initiative to Proposition One (INITIATIVE). The name change was so close to the printing of the ballots an appeal was fruitless.

Oct.   On 10/14, Superior Court Judge Steve Mura refuses to hear arguments on the legalities of the initiative. Judge Mura said didn’t want to interfere with the democratic process.

Nov.   The initiative is defeated by 226 votes out of 16,690 cast. Of the 21,097 voters that cast ballots in the city election, 4,407 or 20.9 percent did not vote on the initiative.

Sept.  The City Council, at the 9/18 meeting, votes 5-1, Gene Knutson opposed and Bob Ryan absent, to increase water rates by $5.00 to purchase land around Lake Whatcom. It also creates a Watershed Advisory Board of seven members for three-year terms and a two-term limit. The board members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

May  The City Council, at the 5/21 meeting, votes 6-1, Bob Ryan opposed, to give the board authority to increase staff and spend money without council authority.

Sept.  The city begins purchasing property: on 9/4 it purchased 35 acreas for $400,000. The city made 23 purchases before the Watershed Advisory Board held its first meeting.

July  The City Council, at the 7/29 meeting, votes 7-0, to modify the makeup and duties of the board.

May  The City Council, at the 5/12 meeting, appoves five board members appointed by the mayor.

Aug.  The Watershed Advisory Board holds its first meeting.

Dec.  Through the end of the year, there was a total of 25 properties purchased: the number of acres purchased was 1,077 for a total cost of $11,400,671.

May  The City Council, at the 5/18 meeting, votes 7-0 to increase the number of Watershed Advisory Board members from seven to 11 and membership eligibility from city residents to Whatcom County residents. 2013

June  The City Council, at the 6/3 meeting, votes 7-0 to accept revised criteria for acquiring property around Lake Whatcom. A six-month review by the Watershed Advisory Board recommended adding soil weight/composition and taking phosphrous reduction into account in each area.

Over the last 23 years, the city has purchased 2,642 acres, and removed 846 development units at a cost of $39.4 million.

June  The City Council, at the 6/5 meeting, votes 6-0, Edwin “Skip Williams excused, to dissolve the Watershed Advisory Board and establish a Water Resources Advisory Board. Property purchases around Lake Whatcom becomes one of the water resource issues of the new board. The others are, but not limited to, municipal water, sanitary sewer, wastewater treatment and disposal, and surface and stormwater utilities.

Some of the dates for 1999 are sourced from The Bellingham Herald. All other dates are sourced from Whatcom Watch; nearly all are from council votes.


Lake Whatcom
photo: Whatcom County – Lake Whatcom Management Program

by Laura Weiss

On June 5, the City Council took a 6-0 vote to pass two ordinances — one creating a Water Resources Advisory Board and the other eliminating the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board.

Lake Whatcom is one of our community’s most precious natural resources, as it provides drinking water for over 100,000 people in Bellingham and the surrounding area. Yet, due to ongoing development, logging and other human activities, the water quality of the lake has been declining over the last several decades.

In 2002, to protect and improve the quality of the city’s water supply, the City of Bellingham established the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board (WAB) to provide community advice regarding land acquisition and other preservation measures.

Since that time, the city and Whatcom County have developed a set of programs and policies designed to protect the lake and our drinking water. These programs are intended to address a number of issues, including two primary water quality problems: phosphorus and bacteria, both of which exceed clean water standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington Department of Ecology.

The City of Bellingham, Whatcom County and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District created the Lake Whatcom Management Program in 1998 to coordinate programs and projects across the three government entities. Staff from each jurisdiction work together to implement an annual work plan, which currently has a total budget of roughly $8.7 million per year.

Total Maximum Daily Load
In 2016, Ecology and EPA finalized a cleanup plan for Lake Whatcom (known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL). The Lake Whatcom TMDL requires the city and county to prevent 3,150 pounds of phosphorus from entering the lake annually by the year 2066. Efforts to date have resulted in an annual reduction of over 200 pounds of phosphorus entering the lake. If we continue reducing phosphorus at that rate, by 2066 we will not even be halfway to the goal.

I joined the WAB in 2019, and, around that time, co-authored an article for Whatcom Watch entitled “Lake Whatcom Needs More Rigorous Action” about how human activities such as development and clearcut logging continue to threaten the long-term health of our drinking water. I also argued that additional policies and programs need to be established to reduce these threats and to protect Lake Whatcom for future generations.

Every time we disturb land in the watershed to cut trees, plant lawns, or build new roads or structures, we contribute to degradation of the lake. Scientists know that natural forest cover and undisturbed forest soils are the best way to protect and preserve a drinking water supply, and to filter and clean stormwater runoff before it reaches the lake. Yet, our watershed continues to see more development and intensive logging practices.

2001 Land Acquisition Program
With an understanding of the need to protect land from development, the city established a land acquisition program in 2001. Since then, the city has protected over 2,600 acres of land through purchases and easements, while removing 846 development units from the watershed at a cost of $39.4 million dollars (funded by watershed fees). Another 7,800 acres of land in the watershed was reconveyed from the Washington Department of Natural Resources to Whatcom County to protect as parkland in 2014.

To be sure, these are steps in the right direction. However, there are currently more than 7,200 homes in the watershed, covering about 4,600 acres of land. Current zoning rules mean that another 1,370 more homes could still be built, which would account for additional 3,336 acres of developed land, according to the city’s 2022 Build-Out Analysis. More development will mean more pollution.

source: “Lake Whatcom Watershed Annual Buildout Analysis Report”

A significant majority of Bellingham residents — 81 percent —think it’s extremely or very important for the city to prevent further development in the Lake Whatcom watershed, according to the city’s 2019 Residential Survey. That’s a heartening number, because, when we prevent further development, we stop more phosphorus and other contaminants from entering the lake.

Many cities realized this fact long ago and have gone much further than Bellingham to fully protect their drinking water. Everett and Seattle, for example, have acquired and protected their drinking watersheds to ensure the long-term protection and clean water for their community. Portland’s Bull Run watershed is entirely off limits to logging and even hiking in the watershed is prohibited.

Eliminate Watershed Advisory Board
About two years ago, city staff began talking to WAB members about the city’s interest in replacing the WAB with a new Water Resources Advisory Board (WRAB).  This was an idea that was initiated by the staff — not the WAB.

The city’s goal with the WRAB was to create a new advisory board to provide public feedback on a much wider array of water resources issues, including the Surface and Stormwater Comprehensive Plan, Water System Plan and the Sewer Comprehensive Plan, as well as other water-related issues that are gaining prominence, such as Lake Padden, Whatcom Creek, and wastewater treatment and disposal at the Post Point facility.

After months of discussion, the WAB voted 3 to 2 in April 2023 to recommend that the City Council pass two ordinances — one to eliminate the WAB and the other to replace it with a WRAB. The original ordinance creating the WAB allowed for up to 11 members, but, due to attrition over the last couple of years and the decision by the mayor to not appoint any new members over that time, there were only five members left on the WAB when the vote to eliminate the WAB occurred.

Minority Vote
I was in the minority for the WAB vote — not because I am opposed to the creation of a WRAB — in fact, I agree that it’s probably a smart move — especially given the significant growth that our community is experiencing and the need for improved infrastructure. I couldn’t support the proposal primarily because I believe this new approach will reduce the attention given to Lake Whatcom.

Having a group of residents who pay close attention to Lake Whatcom water quality and provide input and advice on ways to accelerate progress on policies and programs to effectively protect the lake is important. I am not confident that the lake will get the attention that it requires from this new board given the many topics that the WRAB is tasked to consider.

Need New Policies and Programs
Especially given the impacts of climate change, we need to move beyond a business as usual approach to better protect our source of drinking water. We need new policies and programs that are more effective in rapidly reducing phosphorus levels in the lake while also being more cost-effective. For example:

 Both the city and county have rules to limit phosphorus pollution from new development. However, these rules are less stringent in the county — and they are not effectively enforced. Therefore, the county should update their rules to be consistent with the city’s Silver Beach ordinance for reducing phosphorus loading from new development and also institute an inspection program to ensure that private stormwater facilities continue to work over time (perhaps every five years or at the time of sale, whichever is sooner). 

 The voluntary Homeowner Incentive Program (HIP), designed to encourage homeowners to plant more lake-friendly trees and plants, is expensive and has a limited impact on Lake Whatcom water quality. We need regulatory programs to supplement or replace the HIP program — for both past and future development. The city and county should adopt rules that require all developed lots over, say, a 10-year period, to replace their lawns with more lake-friendly landscaping. And, restrictions on adding new lawns should be put in place.

 The most cost-effective way to keep the lake clean is to take land out of development. The city’s land acquisition program is a critical program for achieving this goal. Despite much progress, development is still far out-pacing the city’s acquisition efforts. The city should identify the bottlenecks that prevent their acquisition program from being competitive on the market, and make policy changes that address those bottlenecks.

 Lastly, the city should more proactively acquire private timberlands in the watershed that are slated to be clearcut, sprayed, and replanted as tree plantations. Decades of research show that mature native forests are superior to tree plantations at providing clean, abundant water all year around. Notably, mature forests are also more resilient to wildfire and drought, which is increasingly important as climate change impacts become more pronounced.

Joint Advisory Board of Residents
Going forward, the city and county should also explore creating a joint Watershed Advisory Board. The Lake Whatcom Management Program consists of city and county staff working closely together, but it does not include direct community input into the behind the scenes work. A joint advisory board of residents who can provide input and advice to the program as a whole would be a valuable addition to the program.

In the meantime, I urge interested members of the public to keep an eye out for the announcement seeking members to apply for the new city WRAB. This new nine-member board will have a very important mission to address water quality more broadly in our community, so having dedicated and well-informed board members will be critical to its success.

At the same time, our elected officials need to be discussing how to ensure that we further elevate and expand the work of the joint Lake Whatcom Management Program and all of the efforts to protect our source of drinking water.  


Laura Weiss has 35 years of professional experience in environmental policy and sustainable business, as well as a Master’s in Public Health and an MBA in Sustainable Business. She is now retired and spends her time volunteering in the community.

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