Editor’s Note: This article, first published in the December 2016 issue, has been revised and expanded.
by Robert Johnson
Annual rainfall is rising in Whatcom County, bringing with it big storms and increased water pollution in the form of heavy runoff from roads and hard surfaces. Runoff carries toxic crud such as oil, pesticides and fertilizers into Lake Whatcom and Bellingham Bay.
Stormwater treatment is essential for the health of Bellingham Bay’s ecosystem and the various wildlife that call Whatcom County home. Each autumn, Coho Salmon swim up the Nooksack River to spawn. Studies by federal fishery researchers found that, when exposed to stormwater collected from a Seattle highway, Coho became sick or died within four hours. Those that survived the initial four hours were dead by the end of 24 hours.
Runoff has also been linked to a number of human deaths. In 2015, a San Diego surfer died of a staph infection and two of his friends fell severely ill after going out in the water less than 72 hours after a major storm. Officials there warn locals not to enter the water for at least three days after a storm because of the resultant upsurge of bacteria in the ocean.
While Bellingham Bay might be too cold for us to take a dip this time of year, one can imagine the effect runoff has on the plants and wildlife.
Bellingham’s wastewater flows through city sewers and is treated at the Post Point water treatment facility before being discharged. Stormwater, which is surface water in excessive amount caused by rain, enters street drains and, in many cases, runs directly into nearby water sources. Bellingham’s lack of a dedicated treatment facility for stormwater is consistent with other stormwater programs around the country, but definitely plays on how the City and its partners tackle the issue. The city’s efforts have shifted away from possible treatment towards implementing robust techniques for handling it.
The Clean Water Act
In the past, stormwater management programs nationwide worked towards getting rain water off streets and roadways as quickly as possible. The Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, changed that. Today, engineers plan systems that slow the flow of water to give time for the filtering of pollutants.
“I don’t think the full impact of the Clean Water Act was understood at the time because it has turned out to have huge and widespread implications for our culture,” said Hank Kastner, a stormwater expert who works with Re Sources for Sustainable Communities.
A federal pollution control act has been in place since 1948, but new amendments to the act in 1972 shaped what became the Clean Water Act. The new additions empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit the level of contaminants in water discharge, implement pollution control programs and make it unlawful for any person to discharge pollutants into navigable waters without obtaining a permit, according to the EPA’s website. The Clean Water Act requires all cities to implement a stormwater program in some form. The Washington Department of Ecology, which enforces the act, issues permits to each city that dictate the specific stormwater programs to be established.
Bellingham was issued Phase II permit in 2007 (Phase I permits are for large cities), which requires the city to implement a public education and outreach program, allow for public involvement, detect and eliminate illicit discharge and control water runoff from construction sites. The permit also requires the city to establish a municipal operations and maintenance division actively working towards reducing and preventing toxic runoff.
Bellingham’s stormwater infrastructure, constructed decades ago, continues to cause problems for the city. Cost alone has made citywide retrofits of older stormwater systems infeasible, Kastner said. A single retrofit project in the Columbia neighborhood cost $1.65 million.
Various types of stormwater infrastructure helps absorb contaminants, but the question still remains whether the new developments will effectively protect our waters when Bellingham gets drenched by the next big storm. Although Kesner describes Bellingham as going “above and beyond” its obligations required by the permit, there are still some problem areas, especially downtown.
Lee First is a North Sound Baykeeper who works with Re Sources to manage the county’s stormwater.
“I think the worst areas are the downtown core with all the pavement; there’s not a lot of treatment [there]” First said.
Downtown Bellingham is also marked by the railroad tracks. First said passing trains produce dust, grit, oil and grease which is then spread across the entire waterfront.
Pavement and impervious surfaces is an issue the entire city deals with, First said.
“Bellingham has more stormwater pollution just because the population is denser and there’s more impervious areas,” First said. “The size of the city and the percentage of impervious surfaces generates more stormwater than small cities.”
The city has undertaken retrofits to existing stormwater infrastructure where necessary, but also reduces contaminant through water absorbing infrastructure like rain gardens and pretreatment facilities.
Bloedel Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom’s north shore has been equipped with pervious concrete surfaces allowing water to seep through, instead of just running into the lake. Old water mains nearing the end of their life cycle are currently being replaced on West Holly Street and E Street. The Lightcatcher Museum installed a vegetated, or green, roof which absorbs rainwater and reduced waterspout overflows by 40-65 percent, according to a joint study by the City of Bellingham and Sustainable Connections.
A more recent addition to Bellingham’s stormwater prevention systems is the Padden Creek Estuary Water Quality Facility. Completed in 2015, the facility on 8th St. just south of Harris Ave. uses a special mixture of soil and plants to help remove pollution from runoff as it passes through. Water is routed from the stormwater main on Harris Ave. and 9th St. and is cleaned in the facility before being released into Padden Creek.
Another prevention technique comes in the form of rain gardens. Bellingham has teamed up with Stewardship Partners and the Washington State University extension to bring 12,000 rain gardens to the Puget Sound. To date, the city has established 72 rain gardens in Bellingham; the number jumps to 800 when including those built on private property.
“Even that’s a drop in the bucket” compared to the amount of water that enters the bay from streets and roads, said Freeman Anthony, a Bellingham engineer in charge of rain gardens and other clean water projects.
Rain gardens are typically placed in parking lots or other heavily-used, paved areas. Runoff from the paved areas drain into the garden, allowing water to be filtered naturally through soil. The city built its first rain gardens in 2004: one in the city hall parking lot, the other the Bloedel Donovan Park lot.
The city has looked at alternatives to rain gardens, the most effective of which is in-ground vaults, collect excess stormwater to avoid overflowing the sewer system. They are widely considered to be the best management practice for holding excess water but can be costly. The rain garden built behind City Hall parking lot cost $5,600, compared to $27,000, the estimated price to install an in-ground vault. According to the 2016 Comprehensive Plan for Capital Facilities and Utilities, the city favors low impact development approaches to stormwater management to “conventional storm drainage design” when feasible.
“The design matches the site,” said Jason Porter, a Utilities Engineer with the City of Bellingham. “In the future, we’re looking to use both Low Impact Development and conventional stormwater management techniques where they are best suited.”
Stormwater has also played a part in reducing water quality in Lake Whatcom, from which the city draws its drinking water. Surface levels of algae in the lake have significantly increased over the past 15 years, doubling in some areas, according to a monitoring project conducted in 2015 by Western Washington University. The EPA lists rising water temperatures as a potential cause for the increase in algae bloom, but nitrate and phosphorus contained in fertilizers also run into the lake and help algae growth.
To counter this trend, the city began construction in November 2016 on a new facility in Whatcom Falls Park. The plant will remove suspended sediment, like algae, from the water before it enters the main filtration system. Algae and other solids frequently block the current treatment plant. At one point during a peak in suspended sediment, the current filter was able to run for only five hours before having to initiate the backflow process, Anthony said. In the event of a backflow, water being transported through pipes to the filter is sent back to the lake, which could cause drinking water contamination.
The project will cost $11.4 million and will be funded by a state loan to the city, which will be repaid through water utility payments by Bellingham residents.
“We might pay a little premium on the front end [when constructing the new plant],” Anthony said, “but when looking at all the social and environmental impacts, you might not go with the cheapest technology.”
Robert Johnson is managing editor at The Western Front at Western Washington University. A writer and editor interested in environmental policy and local government, he is working with the Whatcom Watch as an intern.