Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cleaning up Lake Whatcom

The Lake Washington Story...
During the 1960's, Phosphorus was found in concentrations of 70 parts per billion in Lake Washington. That's a high enough phosphorus concentration to stimulate significant algae growth. But a U.W. Professor, Dr. W.T. Edmondson, predicted that the construction of effluent treatment facilities could dramatically improve water quality in Lake Washington.

In response to community water quality concerns, King County established Metro and embarked on a $140 million dollar campaign (at the time the most costly pollution control effort in the nation) to construct more than 100 miles of trunk lines and interceptors to carry sewage from Lake Washington to sewage treatment plants built at West Point and Renton.

Effluent, which had been estimated to be entering the lake at 20 million gallons per day, was reduced to zero discharge by February of 1968. The concentrations of point and non-point phosphorus loading dropped to 16 parts per billion which increased the lake's transparency from a mere 30 inches in 1964, to 10 feet in 1968. As time passed, water quality continued to improve, and eventually tranparency increased to 20 feet, reaching a transparency of 25 feet in 1993.

Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for algae growth, and certain species of algae is able to thrive in phosphorus rich lake water. With the sewage diversion from the lake and the resulting decrease in available phosphorus, conditions were no longer favorable to algae growth and it diminished entirely in 1976.

The Lake Union Story...
Like Lake Whatcom, the hydrology of Lake Union was altered by the construction of the Fremont and Montlake cuts and the construction of the locks. These modifications increased inflow to Lake Union by diverting the Cedar and Sammamish rivers and outflow from Lake Washington via the Montlake cut and the ship canal.

Lake Union contains soft sediments which contain a large amount of organic material. As microrganisims in the sediment break down, they consume much of the oxygen in the lower part of the lake. Lake Union is heavily urbanized and it's shores are almost completely lined by marinas, residential homes and commercial/industrial neighborhoods. But dissolved oxygen is not as big of a problem as it once was during the summer months.

To address contamination and pollution concerns in Lake Union, a Sewer Overflow Control Program was implemented in the 1980's. The sewer overflow program separates storm water from the University Regulator drainage basin with a new storm water discharge to Lake Union. The overflow program has been in place since 1994.

King County and the City is monitoring the separated storm water discharge to collect data to determine if external phosphorus loading, heavy metals and organic pollutants can be effectively managed through stormwater overflow programs.

The Lake Sammamish Story...
Lake Sammamish is the 6th largest lake in Washington and, although not as developed as lake Union or Lake Washington, still has some of the highest rates of development in Western Washington. Lake Sammamish is a major recreational and residential water body that is heavily used by boaters, fishers, swimmers and skiers.

Like Lake Whatcom, Lake Sammamish is a long, uniform trough that was carved by glaciers. The 1996 Lake Sammamish Water Quality Management Plan studied point and non-point pollution in the Lake Sammamish watershed and determined that new development, roads, logging, and expanding urban areas have contributed to increased pollution in the lake.

But studies have demonstrated that phosphorus loading can be managed through drainage system design, by increasing sewer service and encouraging homeowners, through education and incentives to use best management practices to reduce point and non-point pollution in the watershed.

Although large amounts of algae may relate to changes in conditions, this increased presence may not always reduce beneficial uses.

For the last 15 years, the City of Bellingham and the Lake Whatcom Water District has provided homeowner education to residents who work and live in the watershed. Many property owners, like my husband and myself, have spent thousands of dollars (our own dollars, not tax-payer dollars) installing drain systems to capture and redirect surface and stormwater runoff to ground, (thanks to all the building that is taking place behind us), and have adopted best management practices, (BMP) including natural yard care, using phosphorus free soap to wash cars, installing french drains to capture and redirect rain water runoff from gutters, disconnecting the gutters from sewer lines (which was at one time a legal requirement) to ensure that we are not negatively impacting the health of the lake.

Blaming watershed residents for all of Lake Whatcom's water quality problems is not only short-sighted, but downright arrogant.

17 years ago, during the permiting process, my husband and I had to fight hook, tooth and nail to keep three mature trees on our property. (The City's policy was to force property owners to cut down trees prior to construction because trees present a danger to new and existing structures). Today, the three block area behind my home is almost bare, thanks to the City's policy. The only trees that remain standing are those that are growing on undeveloped lots or alleys.

In addition to draconian land clearing requirements, the City sold the majority of "street easements" that abutted the lake to developers so they could build homes. The sales resulted in the elimination of precious "green space" that provided some measure of natural stormwater runoff absorption at the base of a number of city streets.
Today, many of those homes have sand bags in front of them to prevent flooding during storm events. Obviously, it's not a good idea to build a home at the bottom of a steep road. I have observed sheets of water plumeting down Silver Beach Avenue and Academy during major rain storms.

Point and non-point pollution in the watershed is and continues to be a government-caused problem. The City and County planning departments zoned the watershed to allow construction of residential homes without providing adequate sewer and stormwater managment facilities to protect our drinking water. The majority of lots in Silver Beach are small - (50 by 120 feet in my neighborhood).
The lots were short-platted long before my husband and I purchased our property in 1987.

Washington's Municipalities and Counties have known about phosphorus and other sources of pollution for decades. As noted above, King County acknowledged and began addressing phosphorus loading back in the mid 1950's. Responsibility for planning and zoning falls squarely on the shoulders of cities and counties, not individual homeowners.

But, pointing fingers and assigning blame will not assist us in our efforts to improve water quality in Lake Whatcom.

If the City's proposal to merge with the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District is based on a sincere desire to improve water quality; then the City will make significant financial investments in sewer upgrades to ensure that the majority of residential homes in the Lake Whatcom Watershed have access to sewer and stormwater management services.

The cost of cleaning up the lake should be shouldered by everyone who uses the watershed, not just the individuals who live here. Thousands of people own boats in this county - and many of those boat owners launch their boats at public boat launches on Lake Whatcom.

Other sources of pollution include old saw and lumber mill sites and old abandoned coal mines. Early Whatcom County history books include observations of the lake that include detailed descriptions of cloudy, polluted water from mining and industrial activity.

Over the last fifteen years, the Britton Road has become a major truck route - with hundreds of dump trucks transporting thousands of pounds of dirt, rock and debris in and out of the watershed each summer and fall. The trucks use North Shore Drive as a connector to Lake Whatcom Boulevard and North Shore Road.

Thousands of non-watershed residents use the lake for swimming, hiking and fishing each year. Everyone who recreates in the watershed has a responsibility to ensure that Lake Whatcom meets or exceeds public drinking water quality standards.

Again, past research supports the installation of sewer lines to capture and remove effluent from watersheds. Once effluent is removed, the concentration of phosphorus and other contaminants drop quickly, over time.

Another major contributor to phosphorus loading is logging. Whatcom County is blessed with millions of acres of forest lands. Which means -- we can afford to be selective about logging in the watershed.

Contrary to what we read in the Bellingham Herald comment section, the release of the recent TMDL study does not mean that we have to rip down houses, pull up streets or abandon our city neighborhoods.

But it does suggest that we need to work together in partnership with other governments, like Whatcom County, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District and state regulatory agencies to design a cost effective management plan to protect and restore water quality in Lake Whatcom. The Department of Ecology is recommending that we reduce phosphorus loading by 70%.

In addition, there are a number of cost effective ways to deal with the capture of household pollutants in storm drains. Check out Science Daily at New products, like the smart sponge remove common household pollutants like paint, oil, grease, nitrocarbons and E. coli bacteria.

I find it difficult to comprehend the hatred, bigotry and intolerance expressed by individuals who are advocating the removal of people, not pollution, from the watershed as the only way to control contaminant loading.

But if this is the approach that the citizens of Bellingham choose, I'm willing to make the City a once in a life time offer, $585,000 cash --today -- and my beautiful home on the hillside overlooking Lake Whatcom will be yours to raze to the ground --

Re: technology and stormwater treatment --

**ScienceDaily -- "Storm drains fitted with a spongy material -- a synthetic polymer similar to those used in diapers -- can catch household pollutants such as paint and motor oil as they are washed off by the rain. Twenty-eight states are already using the material to stop pollutants from reaching rivers, lakes and oceans."

Click here to view educational video:

** This post is not intended to be an in depth study of phosphorus loading programs. It's a brief summary of phosphorus loading in urban lakes in King County. A visit to King County's official site will provide readers with detailed information about the programs.

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