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Whatcom Watch Online
Lake Whatcom’s Downward Trends

June 2006

Cover Story

Lake Whatcom’s Downward Trends

by April J. Markiewicz

April Markiewicz is an environmental toxicologist and the assistant director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology in Huxley College at Western Washington University. She’s also an advocate for the protection of Lake Whatcom and is the president of People for Lake Whatcom.

Over the last several months, Lake Whatcom and the issues affecting it and the surrounding watershed have receded somewhat from our collective consciousness. It is not too difficult to understand why. All anyone in our community has to say is “Waterfront,” “Chuckanut Ridge,” or “Greenways” and we become thoroughly engaged, eager to share our opinions with anyone who will listen to us. These topics provide exciting new opportunities for us to explore and debate over what we should or shouldn’t do as a community. They also connect with our core values, including our sense of place and our relationship to the environment around us.

To some extent, Lake Whatcom and its surrounding watershed provides those connections, too: as a scenic location to live and recreate, as well as serving as the only drinking water source for approximately 86,000 residents in Bellingham and parts of Whatcom County. We value this great resource in the heart of our community, and the crucial role it plays in our future as a community and in our quality of life. Our diverse and often conflicting demands on Lake Whatcom have taken their toll, however, and with each passing year the water quality in the lake has become more and more degraded. The implications for our community cannot be minimized, ignored or forgotten, regardless of the distractions that might temporarily capture our attention.

According to the most recent Lake Whatcom Monitoring Report, water quality conditions in Lake Whatcom have not only continued to deteriorate, but have done so at an accelerating rate (Matthews et al. 2006). These results further substantiate the long-term water quality trends identified in the 2002/2003 and 2003/2004 Lake Whatcom Monitoring reports. The primary differences in this report are how quickly the degradation has accelerated and how thoroughly it has spread throughout the lake within the last year. The 2004/2005 data clearly shows that the entire lake is now affected, with water quality degradation evident in all basins of the lake.

Research Results Were Surprising

These results were surprising, given the efforts by the city and county to control and mitigate impacts on the lake from the activities occurring in the watershed over the past five years. Both have dedicated millions of dollars, resources and personnel to this effort. They have implemented more restrictive land clearing and development standards, provided incentives to reduce density, made zoning changes, banned the use of fertilizers, banned the operation of two-cycle engine watercraft on the lake, retrofitted storm water treatment systems using the best available technology and created a land acquisition program, to name a few.

As part of the 2004/2005 monitoring project, two storm water treatment systems in the watershed, the Park Place wet pond and the Alabama Hill underground storm water treatment vault, were monitored and their performance at removing phosphorus and sediment compared to one outside the watershed located at Western Washington University (WWU). The WWU system was found to provide consistent phosphorus and sediment removal, whereas the Park Place and Alabama Hill systems provided “virtually no phosphorus removal and minimal or inconsistent removal of particles” (Matthews et al. 2006). Matthews et al. (2006) found “phosphorus concentrations at the outlet from Park Place were higher than levels found in Silver Beach Creek,” the most urbanized, contaminated stream in the watershed. Moreover, “the vaults performed particularly poorly, routinely exceeding levels of phosphorus found in Silver Beach Creek” (Matthews et al. 2006).

Key Points

1. The rate of oxygen loss from the bottom waters of Basins 1, 2 and 3 is increasing (Figure 2).

2. “Dead zones” of low dissolved oxygen form earlier, are larger and persist longer in Basins 1 and 2 during the summer.

3. Zones of very low dissolved oxygen now form in Basin 3 during the summer.

4. Low oxygen conditions cause the release of mercury, phosphorus and other metals from sediments into the water.

5. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide concentrations are increasing in concentration under low oxygen conditions.

6. Phosphorus levels have increased throughout the lake.

7. Bluegreen algae that cause odor and taste problems in water have increased throughout the lake (Figure 3).

8. All other species of algae have also increased throughout the lake (Figure 4).

9. Amounts of organic carbon are increasing throughout the lake.

10. Trihalomethanes, which are known carcinogens, are increasing in concentration in Bellingham’s treated water (Figure 5).

11. Fecal coliforms and E.coli were in significantly high concentrations in Silver Beach Creek compared to all the other creeks monitored.

12. High concentrations of residential storm water pollutants are present in creeks emptying into the lake.

13. None of the storm water treatment systems monitored in the watershed are effective in removing phosphorus and sediment removal.


The rapidity in which the degradation has spread throughout the lake is alarming. Basin 3 is the largest basin of Lake Whatcom, containing more than 95 percent of the water, which historically has always been the cleanest. Conventional thought has been that water quality in the basin would probably remain pristine for several more decades. The sheer volume of water in Basin 3 was expected to dilute and dissipate whatever inputs of nutrients and other contaminants entered it over time. Moreover, the lack of development around its shoreline and its semi-isolation from the two smaller, shallower, and more contaminated basins to the north were thought to provide added protection as well (See Figure 1 on the left). The first indications that water quality conditions were becoming degraded in Basin 3 appeared during the 2002/2003 monitoring period (Matthews et al. 2003). Matthews et al. (2003) also reported that water quality conditions were degrading at an accelerating rate and that residential development around Lake Whatcom was the primary factor impacting the lake’s water quality. At the time it was inconceivable to imagine that within two years the degradation would spread throughout the whole lake, impacting water quality in all the basins.

Where Do We Go From Here?

According to Matthews (2006):

■ If phosphorus loading is not stopped, the oxygen depletion in the lake will not stabilize.

■ The single most important contributor to pollution in Lake Whatcom is storm water runoff from residential development.

■ Current problems are from existing development.

■ The lake cannot sustain the current level of development without increasing algal production.

■ We need to limit the effects of new development and mitigate the effects of existing development.

Unfortunately, land clearing and residential development continues relatively unabated in the watershed. Not surprisingly, the preliminary 2005/2006 water quality data are already indicating even greater deterioration of water quality in Lake Whatcom. Each downward trending data point that is added to the record serves as another nail in the coffin for Lake Whatcom.

At this rate of deterioration, we may have already exceeded the lake’s ability to ever stabilize. We need to stop phosphorus from entering the lake now, but recognize that Best Management Practices (BMPs) and state-of-the-art storm water treatment systems may not do a very good job. We therefore need to take an adaptive management approach in which we try different systems, monitor them to determine whether they are failing due to flaws in design or operation, and be willing to make changes so that they do function as intended.

Take Home Message

The Lake Whatcom Monitoring 2004/2005 Final Report conveys three hard-earned messages based on 30 years of water quality monitoring in the Lake Whatcom watershed. We must:

1. Stop thinking we can build houses next to our drinking water source and nothing bad will happen to the quality of our drinking water.

2. Stop thinking we can “fix” anything we want, anytime we want if we throw enough money and technology at it.

3. Always remember: everything that happens in the Lake Whatcom watershed stays in the watershed and ends up, in some form, in the water.

The Lake Whatcom Monitoring Project 2004/2005 Final Report is available online and can be downloaded from WWU’s Institute for Watershed Studies Web page at: under Projects, Lake Whatcom Water Quality, Online Reports. Paper copies are available from the city of Bellingham Public Works Division Water Department. §


■ Matthews, R.A. 2006. Lake Whatcom research collaboration between Western Washington University and the city of Bellingham, Washington. Presentation given to Muroran Institute for Technology March 15, 2006.

■ Matthews, R.A., M. Hilles, J. Vandersypen, R.J. Mitchell, and G.B. Matthews. 2003. Lake Whatcom Monitoring Project 2002/2003 Final Report. Prepared for the city of Bellingham, Bellingham, WA. April 5, 2004. 291 pages.

■ Matthews, R.A., M. Hilles, J. Vandersypen, R.J. Mitchell, and G.B. Matthews. 2006. Lake Whatcom Monitoring Project 2004/2005 Final Report. Prepared for the city of Bellingham, Bellingham, WA. March 30, 2006. 465 pages.

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