Bellingham Citizens Propose Protecting Lake Whatcom

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch, has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the September 1998 issue of Whatcom Watch.

by Tim Paxton

An initiative created by input from a large group of Bellingham citizens is making its way toward potential action by the voters of Bellingham this November.

It is a simple plan to begin long-term funding to acquire land within the Lake Whatcom Reservoir Watershed boundary. A proposed $10 per month per household fee on the water bill would raise over $2,500,000 per year to finance land acquisition. An initial bond issue of $40 million would accelerate the purchase of land over the first five years of the program.

The money would set up a willing buyer/willing seller arrangement whereby the city of Bellingham would buy watershed land and hold it in perpetuity as forested watershed. Other provisions in the Lake Whatcom Protection Ordinance wording include: prioritization of land purchases to achieve the most watershed protection; new, hold harmless bonding required of developers within watershed; eliminating clear cut logging but allowing for the possibility of individual tree harvest to provide income to acquire more watershed land; a goal of acquiring $40 million worth of watershed land in first five years.

Bellingham residents’ concerns about the Lake Whatcom situation peaked during the early part of 1998 with the release of Dr. Robin Matthews’ report on Lake Whatcom and Dr. Frank James’ departure as chief Health Officer for Whatcom County. The result of these two events and subsequent under-response by elected officials at the county level prompted some discussion as to how to best protect our drinking water supply. A group of five individuals met for months, looked at every imaginable option, and concluded that users of drinking water are the logical ones to pay for protection of their water supply.

Proven Method for Watershed Protection
Land acquisition is a proven method of reducing and preventing pollution in watersheds around the world. It is cheaper to prevent pollution than to pay for cleanup and restoration.

For a local example, the city of Seattle announced recently that after approximately 100 years of effort, they had finally acquired 100 percent control of their watershed.

Over 100 years ago in Seattle, a citizens’ led effort began the process of buying watershed land which makes up the Cedar River and Green River watersheds. Currently the land is strictly controlled for access with gates on roads, fences and security guards. The city of Seattle has done such a good job protecting their water supply that they recently announced plans to study marketing of their water as bottled water.

Many other cities in Washington state and around the U.S. have come to the same conclusion that it is far less expensive to prevent pollution than it is to clean it up.

Cities ranging from Laguna Beach, California, to New York City all have in place plans to acquire land within their watersheds simply to protect valuable water supplies. Many cities do not have the luxury of still being able to even consider buying land within their watersheds. New York City has budgeted over a billion dollars to buy land in upstate New York for its watershed protection purposes.

Economics of Land Acquisition
Bellingham needs clean water to continue to grow and prosper. The many problems with Whatcom County supplies of water have many cities looking toward Lake Whatcom as the last clean water source in Whatcom County. Unfortunately, the city of Bellingham may not have enough for its own growth.

The proposed ordinance creates long-term funding for watershed protection via land acquisition. Bellingham water users will have $10 per month added to their water bill. Commercial and industrial users will have a watershed surcharge added to their water bills based on quantity used. This money will all go toward buying land within the Lake Whatcom Reservoir Watershed.

Since land prices in the watershed are rising quickly, it makes sense to purchase as much undeveloped land as possible now. An initial bond issue of $40 million will be used to target land readily available and where maintenance of natural conditions will be most effective, such as along streams and creeks. Next in priority would be land abutting the north end of the lake, around basins two and one. The goal is to get the best environmental return on money invested in our watershed.

Trends in Lake Whatcom
Dr. Robin Matthews’ research on the condition of Lake Whatcom showed some alarming trends in the Lake Whatcom water quality. The presence of two parasites, cryptosporidium and giardia, in Lake Whatcom lead the list. Both are resistant to treatment via chlorination and filtration, the processes used at Bellingham’s treatment plant.

A cryptosporidium outbreak happened in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1993; over 400,000 contracted a gastrointestinal illness associated with the cryptosporidium parasite. Over 100 people died as a result of this outbreak.

This is a serious situation for anyone with a compromised immune system. Potential victims included transplant patients, chemotherapy patients, AIDS patients, the very young and the very old. Most people served by Bellingham water are not at risk. No cryptosporidium has yet been found in the treated water supply of Bellingham.

However, the situation was serious enough to warrant the city of Bellingham to take the positive action to provide treated bottled water to people who request it. The bottled water is treated via reverse osmosis to filter out cryptosporidium cysts.

Also found in recent Lake Whatcom research were concentrations of E.coli, a bacteria found in human and animal feces.

The presence of a now-closed garbage dump site on the Y Road is a worrisome situation. Many fish kills have been reported in Lake Whatcom near streams which drain near the Y Road dump.

City of Bellingham Action
Recently, the Bellingham City Council members took the forward thinking stand of declining to provide Bellingham city water to the proposed Winchester Estate development, within the watershed.

Plans are under way by the city to begin stormwater management improvements some time in the future. The proposed ordinance of buying land is complementary to this proposed action by the city of Bellingham, we believe.

City and County Council members, County Executive Pete Kremen and Mayor Mark Asmundson and various key city and county staff members have had a chance to preview the proposed ordinance and provide valuable feedback. Many of their comments and suggestions were addressed in a revised draft of the ordinance. A current copy of the revised ordinance wording is available at:

This proposal is a new concept only by the fact that it establishes a new long-term plan with long-term funding. The city of Bellingham already owns and manages land within the watershed: along the diversion from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack, Bloedel Donovan Park, roads, forested land, etc.

Many other actions are needed to ensure the future and safety of our water supply. Land acquisition as approved by the voters of the city of Bellingham is fortunately complementary to all of them. This proposed effort has wide precedent and does not simply depend on new regulations and enforcement to attempt to protect or clean up Lake Whatcom.

Stormwater treatment and possible diversion, transfer of density rights, sewage infrastructure repair in Sudden Valley, toxic chemical use regulations, impact fees and many other water quality related activities will occur. Since many of these actions require both city and county coordination, it is simpler to have land acquisition move ahead with the city of Bellingham providing the vision and funding to begin this long-term watershed protection plan.

Editor’s Note: The initiative did not qualify for the ballot until November 1999. The City Council was unsuccessful in its attempt to have the initiative removed from the ballot. It lost by 226 votes out of 17,690 cast. In September 2000, the City Council approved a $5 rate hike. A referendum to repeal the rate hike qualifed for the ballot, but a judge ruled the rate hike was a tax and not subject to the refendum process.

Tim Paxton has lived in Bellingham for 40 years. He is a former president of the North Cascades Audubon Society.