Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Phosphorus laden Lake Whatcom raises eyebrows of the city, neighbors

Another gray day on Lake Whatcom
Photo by Mikey Jane Moran
The Bellingham City Council proposed a $7 water rate increase per month to pay for phosphorus reduction efforts in Lake Whatcom. Engineering firm, CH2M Hill, also provided the city with a a cost-benefit analysis of a reduction plan in December 2011, which included retrofits, rain gardens and reorganization of roads.

The city has yet to implement rate hikes and the reduction plan is still under consideration by the city council, but water quality in Lake Whatcom continues to be an issue for all of the Bellingham residents who drink it everyday.

“It's a source of water for almost 100,000 people so it's something we should all pay attention to,” said Myron Wlaznak, Silver Beach resident and Neighborhood Association member.

The lake's phosphorus content is above acceptable levels according to the Department of Ecology, encouraging algae to grow, which limits the oxygen in the lake and contaminates the water pouring out of Belingham's taps.
A sign in Bloedel Donavan tells all
Photo by Mikey Jane Moran

The worth of current programs

The Silver Beach neighborhood, which lies on the watershed and adjacent to the lake, has been host to city projects like the Homeowners Incentive Program. This project provides grants to residents who re-landscape their property to minimize runoff and according to the cost-benefit analysis, Silver Beach will be the target of more programs like this one in the future.

The city also currently distributes rain barrels and circulates educational pamphlets through out the neighborhood to raise awareness of what city programs can offer residents.

Building designer and Sliver Beach resident Jan Hayes said the best way to deal with runoff pollution is to continue to expand these incentive opportunities. Hayes landscaped her property with the help of the Homeowners Incentive Program, which payed for the majority of the project.

“I have done what I can on my property to mitigate my runoff and I am hoping that is significant enough,” Hayes said.

Wlaznak is less confident in the effectiveness of existing programs. He said rain barrels often overflow during heavy rains, spilling rain water back on to the streets. He thinks small changes like rain gardens are not enough to bring about necessary improvements and the city is missing out on mitigating the largest source of runoff: roads.

Runoff flows onto the beach
Photo by Mikey Jane Moran
Roads are impervious, meaning water cannot soak into the soil. In addition, Wlaznak said roads in the Silver Beach area are rounded in the middle so runoff flows into shoulders, picking up dirt and phosphorous and depositing it directly into storm drains.

“Once phosphorus becomes soluble,” Wlaznak said, “it is extremely difficult to get it out through any type of filtering medium.”

He suggests ecologically conscious roadway programs, such as the one implemented on North Shore Drive which uses porous pavement so dirty water can be filtered by soil before reaching the lake. Road retrofits will be a feature of the city's reduction plan according to the cost-benefit analysis released by CH2M Hill.

The development debate

Development around the lake is also a concern and most of the money gathered from the water rate hike will go to pay for property purchases so land can be preserved and undeveloped, said Clare Fogelsong, Environmental Resource Manager for the Bellingham Public Works Department.

“We are looking for the most return,” said Fogelsong, who explained the city can maximize phosphorous loading reduction by protecting forested areas around the lake.

“Any disturbance in the land adds and contributes to more phosphorus in the lake so development is one of the big culprits,” Hayes said.

Municipal code prevents land development in Silver Beach during the rainy season from Oct. 1 to May 31 every year to limit phosphorous runoff from loose dirt.

The local perspective

Land acquisition is an important part of the lake's health and Wlaznak could not be a bigger proponent of the cause, but he also calls for a more hands on approach from the city. He suggested experienced gardeners talk to residents while they are working in their yards and offer suggestions about greener landscaping options.

“I think people will respond more to that than to getting a regulation crammed down their throats,” said Wlaznak, who advocated the city work more locally.

“I think the city's approach really needs to be much more interactive with the people, they need to get to know the people,” he said. “I can't tell you how many violations of the watershed rules happen on the weekends and unfortunately the city works nine to five.”

Fogelsong said that the city also hopes to have a more local focus and is “gearing up” it's employees to serve the community better.

“We have spent many years distributing fliers and mailers, and we were just not pleased with the results,” said Fogelsong, emphasizing the city's shift to more involved strategies. He said residents can expect to see more city officials conversing with individuals in the months to come.

But residents must also step up and do their part to limit phosphorus run-off, Hayes said.

A sign presents a call to action in the park
Photo by Mikey Jane Moran
“I think the city has done a reasonable job of putting [information] on their website. They've done public announcements and mailers and all sorts of things to get the word out, but people still have to respond,” she said.

Even with the lake in their front yard, many citizens are unaware of lake pollution issues. Boater and resident of Silver Beach, Alan Lipp, said he doubts community members understand the dangers of phosphorous in the lake.

“I don't know if [residents] know if there is a problem at all,” said Lipp while boating in Bloedel Donovan Park. “I just went to set my boat down and there is dog poop right there by the water.”

Because phosphorous is not visible like other forms of pollution, it can go unnoticed.

“Unfortunately, you can look at the water now and you can't see the problems,” said Wlaznak, though the issue still persists however unseen.

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