Whatcom Watch Online
February 1999
Volume 8, Issue 2

Cover Story:

Local Watershed Management Project to Affect Quality of Life and Economic Future of Whatcom County

Editor's Note: This article was derived from the Watershed Management Project Structure and Function document which was issued on December 29, 1998, and signed by Tom Anderson, Public Utility District #1; Mark Asmundson, City of Bellingham; Merle Jefferson, Lummi Nation; Bob Kelly, Nooksack Tribe; and Pete Kremen, Whatcom County.

Tom Anderson is Manager of Public Utility District #1, Mark Asmundson is Mayor of Bellingham, Merle Jefferson is Natural Resource Director for the Lummi Nation, Bob Kelly is Natural Resource Director for the Nooksack Tribe, Pete Kremen is Whatcom County Executive.

Please address any questions or comments, as well as information about any particular caucus, to:

Barry Hill, WRIA #1 Watershed Planning
2221 Pacific Street,
Bellingham, WA 98226
Phone: (360) 676-6850 x301
Fax: (360) 676-7799,
email: bhill@cob.org

Within the next few months and years, decisions will be made and plans implemented regarding the water resources of the Nooksack River watershed and certain adjacent streams (Water Resource Inventory Area 1 or WRIA 1).

These decisions and plans, along with the Growth Management Act and projects in response to the pending Endangered Species Act listing for Chinook salmon, will determine the landscape, the environmental health, and the economic future of Whatcom County and surrounding areas.

Agencies of federal, tribal, and state governments are authorized to make these decisions, and many of these decisions are being formulated now. The state legislature, with agreements from federal agencies, has provided an opportunity for watershed management decisions to be made locally.

New Law Calls for Local Decsion-Making

The local opportunity was provided by the Watershed Management Act (ESHB 2514, RCW 90.82) of April 1998. State agencies will accept the locally determined decisions if local representatives in Water Resources Inventory Area 1 can work together.

The representatives will have to make scientifically sound assessments of the problems and collaborate to form a Planning Unit. They will need to forge agreements among the affected parties, and adhere to federal, tribal, state, and local laws. And finally, they will have to create a comprehensive watershed management plan and implementation strategy.

Federal agencies participating or represented in the planning project may also accept the applicable obligations included in the plan.

Watershed Planning

The local Watershed Management Project has just begun. In accordance with the Memorandum Of Agreement signed in October, the first task of the Initiating Governments is to fully define the Planning Unit. The Initating Governments include the City of Bellingham, the Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Tribe, Whatcom County, and Whatcom County PUD #1.

If local elected and appointed decision-makers can succeed at working together, they will determine how water resources in Water Resources Inventory Area 1 will be managed. If local decision-makers cannot cooperate and plan together, the state, tribal, and federal governments will make the necessary water resource management decisions.

Beginning the Watershed Planning Process

The diagram titled “WRIA 1 Watershed Planning” (facing page) shows how the planning process will proceed. This structure and process has been negotiated and defined over the course of several meetings by the Initiating Governments, consisting of the City of Bellingham, the Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Tribe, Whatcom County, and Whatcom County PUD #1.

The tribes in Water Resource Inventory Area 1, the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe, have taken a leadership role in this project, with a commitment to cooperation and collaboration. This tribal dedication and professionalism increases the probability of the project's success, and separates this effort from previous watershed planning efforts.

The tribes have treaty rights that cannot be affected by state law. Their active participation in a watershed process created by state law is voluntary and demonstrates a good faith desire to cooperate with other governments.

In the Watershed Planning diagram, the arrows between the components in the diagram mostly represent the flow of information, communication, and feedback, and should not be confused with typical organizational charts that depict only lines of authority and reporting responsibility. This process must be a collaborative effort, characterized by cooperation, trust, and mutual support if it is to succeed.

In the large box in the middle of the diagram are the Management Team and the Administrative Decision-Makers of the Initiating Governments. This represents a part of the government-to-government structure required by the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe.

This group will design, coordinate, and support the planning process. The Management Team will oversee and coordinate the day-to-day functioning of the planning process and assist in formulating and carrying out the designs and decisions of the Administrative Decision-Makers.

Together the Management Team and the Administrative Decision-Makers will determine the overall structure of the planning project, determine the scope of work, organize and coordinate the Technical Teams, design and implement public involvement and education, select and provide support staff, administer budgets and contracts, facilitate the Planning Unit, and communicate with the councils of the Initiating Governments.

Planning Unit Defined

The large box at the bottom of the diagram represents the Planning Unit. This body will facilitate the contribution of knowledge, technical expertise, funding, equipment, and other resources. Representatives on the Planning Unit are responsible for expressing the interests of their constituents.

The Planning Unit will endorse the water resources plan before it is brought to the Administrative Decision-Makers of the Initiating Governments. Participants on the Planning Unit will be the Management Team and representatives of caucuses.

County to be Lead Agency

Whatcom County is the Lead Agency for the Watershed Management Project. Its role in this effort is administrative. The Lead Agency is to coordinate and facilitate the watershed planning process. The Lead Agency will provide staff and receive and disburse funds for the execution of grants, contracts, and services as determined by consensus of the Initiating Governments.

Whatcom County, as the government with county-wide taxing authority, will fund the local portion of the Watershed Management Project. The Councils of the Initiating Governments are the elected policy makers who have the final approval authority for the watershed plan. These councils will also provide policy direction and provide feedback to both the Administrative Decision-Makers and the Management Team.

Structure of the Planning Unit

The Planning Unit is composed of the Management Team, Local Governments, and Water Resource Interests. The Management Team is composed of technically qualified professionals appointed by the Initiating Governments. Local Governments (other than the Initiating Governments) and Water Resource Interests will be composed of representatives of caucus groups. To ensure that a manageable size is maintained, only one representative will participate in the Planning Unit meetings.

Meetings of the Planning Unit will be run efficiently in accordance with an agenda of issues distributed in advance. Planning Unit meetings will be open to the public for observation, but will not be conducted as open public forums. There will be regular opportunities in other contexts for general public comment and input.

Caucuses: Local Governments and Water Resource Interests

The small cities in Water Resource Inventory Area 1 will constitute a single caucus and select one representative to sit on the Planning Unit. Similarly, the Water Districts and Diking/Drainage Districts will be asked to form separate caucuses and each select a representative. The Port Authority will also be invited to select a representative for the Planning Unit.

As shown on thd diagram, water resource interests will be invited to constitute six separate caucuses representing fishers, agriculture, forestry, environmental, land development, and non-municipal water systems.

Some of these caucuses may contain organizations and individuals with somewhat divergent views. In those instances where the caucus cannot come to speak with one mind on a given issue, it will be the responsibility of the caucus representative to present all of the divergent viewpoints fairly.

Caucuses will need to organize themselves, direct their activities, and create means for communicating among the members and their designated representative, so that each member organization in the caucus is fairly informed, heard, and represented.

The Management Team will facilitate the planning process, but it will not be responsible for the formation and functioning of the caucus organizations. Each caucus is the responsibility of its members. The Management Team is assembling, and will make available, information about the structure and definition of other successful caucus efforts.

Caucus Participation

The formation of these caucuses will not be an easy process. Organizations and people who want to participate in the planning process will have to commit time and resources to the effort and come together with others of similar interests in a spirit of collaboration, fairness, and mutual support.

Because the planning effort is a multi-year process, the caucuses must be defined and structured so as to withstand the rigors of long association and potentially contentious events. Representatives must be chosen carefully as these people will be expected to devote considerable time to the service of all of their members.

The Management Team

The seven-member Management Team is composed of the appointed representatives of the five Initiating Governments and two representatives (one representative each) for state and federal agencies.

Similar to the other caucuses, the state and federal representatives will be responsible for communicating the interests of, and securing resources from, those agencies they represent. Each member of the Management Team is a member of the Planning Unit.

Technical Teams

Much of the initial planning effort will consist of conducting technical studies designed to answer specific questions. The Management Team will work with the Technical Teams to address questions related to water quantity, water quality, habitat, and instream flows.

The Technical Teams, which may include consultants or researchers provided by federal or state agencies, will develop the technical assessments necessary for knowledge-based decision making. The Technical Teams will distribute updates and reports to the Planning Unit, and will at times conduct or assist in educational programs for the public and interested groups.

Public Involvement and Education

It is vital to the success of this project that members of the public be aware and informed about water resource management decisions and their importance to the people of Whatcom County and surrounding areas.

The public needs to know the benefits expected from their expenditures for the project. Many interested citizens would also like to contribute to the process or to provide helpful and constructive comment and input.

Finally, the public needs to be able to monitor the project and be satisfied that their diverse needs are being considered.

To ensure popular participation, a Public Involvement and Education team will be formed. This team will use a variety of methods, including public meetings and the internet, to facilitate and encourage public awareness, participation, and input.

Creating the Caucuses

The Initiating Governments will then finalize the design, and the first meeting of the Planning Unit will be held on February 25, 1999. Interested organizations and individuals are encouraged to start the discussions necessary to create the caucus organizations and select representatives for the Planning Unit as soon as possible.

The Management Team will be meeting weekly during early 1999 to define the scopes of work for the necessary technical studies. The proposed scopes of work will be presented during the first Planning Unit meeting.

Forthcoming Decisions Will Affect Each of Us

The stakes are enormous. Everyone's pocketbook and quality of life will be affected. The decisions will affect water quality, salmon habitat, jobs, farms, cities, and households.

Here is a partial list of questions to be addressed:

The Watershed Management Act may provide the last opportunity for local decision-makers to plan and implement necessary water resource solutions. Now is the time to trust, cooperate, and work together.

Cover Story:

Initiative Filed to Reduce Infectious Waste Treatment in Whatcom County

by Jean McKay
Jean McKay is a retired elementary school teacher and a four-year resident of Whatcom County.

On January 20, 1999, a local group, Safe Waste Management, Now, filed an initiative with the Whatcom County Auditor to reduce the amount of dangerous infectious waste which can be accepted at any local commercial treatment facility. The group is currently gathering signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot.

The initiative became necessary because the Whatcom County Council voted 4 to 3 in December to table a draft ordinance proposed by Councilmember Barbara Brenner. The draft ordinance to reduce the risk to the community from large-scale infectious waste at local facilities was also supported by Councilmembers Tom Brown and Connie Hoag. Brenner has studied the issue for more than ten years and has served in the past on state and local committees regarding infectious waste.

The initiative will amend the Whatcom County Code 24.06 as follows: “Acceptance of infectious waste shall be limited at commercial treatment facilities to 0.3 per cent of Whatcom County´s solid waste stream. Limits shall be maintained on a monthly basis based on the previous year´s annual solid waste amount divided by 12. Commercial treatment facilities will report the amount of infectious waste accepted during the previous month to the Whatcom County Health and Human Services Department no later than the 15th of each month.” More details are spelled out in the initiative.

As of now, there are no limits on the amount of infectious waste which can be accepted at local facilities. There are no comprehensive state regulations pertaining to infectious wastes. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that nation-wide, infectious wastes constitute about 0.24 per cent of the general solid waste stream. The initiative will also reduce the co-mingling of infectious waste with non-infectious waste.

Waste Imported into Whatcom County

Recomp´s solid waste facility on Slater Road accepts more than 300 tons of infectious waste per month from many places including Canada, California, and other states. By comparison, Whatcom County produces about eight tons of infectious waste per month. I do not believe that the public interest served by Whatcom County being a large-scale repository for infectious waste outweighs the risks to the community.

On the other hand, there are proven cases of Washington infectious waste workers contracting tuberculosis by handling infectious waste. More than half the workers at another regional facility tested positive for TB even though tracking workers´ infection is very difficult.

A position paper by the Washington State Departments´ of Health, Ecology, Labor and Industries, and the Utilities and Transportation Commission, warns that the general public may face infection risk from infectious waste workers at regional facilities like Recomp. In fact, these four State agencies report that the most significant risk to workers results from large-scale infectious waste operations, and that there are limited local resources and expertise to adequately address the issue.

The initiative contains monetary penalities for the first two violations of the infectious waste limit and the loss of permit for the third violation. However, the county may revoke a permit at any time for willful or egregious violations.

A task force was formed in December by the Whatcom County Health Department to study the issue. Unfortunately, the task force includes members who have direct and indirect financial interests in maintaining the status quo.

I believe the present situation of large-scale amounts of infectious waste being accepted at local facilities is dangerous. Whatcom County residents must have the opportunity to be fully informed about the risks, and then be allowed to vote on the matter. For background information, you may call County Councilmember Barbara Brenner at 384-2762. The constitutionality of this initiative has been verified by a large number of national and local attorneys.

Please call me, Jean McKay, 647-2708, for more information about the initiative.

Fish Out of Water

Please, Make Yourself at Home

by Jeff Muse
Jeff Muse is an educator and writer living in Bellingham.

Part 1: Learn the Place Names

If, as Wendell Berry contends, to know thy place is to know thyself, then I´ve got my work cut out for me. Although I grew up in Indiana, I´ve spent the past eight years living in at least as many states and a score of apartments, houses, cars, buses, and boats. Friends can´t keep track of me, letters reach me months after their mailing, and my family has become so accustomed to my moving that they´ve purchased stock in U-Haul. It´s both a gift and a curse, this rootless behavior, as I feel at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Sadly, I´m not alone. There are plenty of restless folks just like me, all searching for utopia in the mountains, on another coast, or in some artsy little town that prefers to be called a “hamlet.” A friend of mine claims she´s “shopping around,” and agrees that while frequent moves make for a colorful life, one pays a price. It´s a spiritual as well as monetary cost, and the debt burdens one´s community as well as one´s soul.

I suspect that there are others out there who, like me, think it´s high time to dig in, to eschew this “footlooseness,” as E.F. Schumacher called it. I started this column with hopes that it could be a sounding board for ideas on making ourselves at home here in northwest Washington. Toward that end, I´ll throw out the first suggestion.

The Story Behind the Name

When acquainting yourself with a new home, start with the obvious: its name.

Ever wondered how Bellingham came to be? What about Ferndale, Lynden, Mt. Baker, or the Nooksack River? Everyday we say the names of towns we live in, streets we travel on, and businesses we patronize, often with little knowledge of what they really mean. Yet in the names themselves we can learn a great deal about the ground right under our feet.

Behind every place name is a story worth knowing. Take, for instance, my apartment complex, Orchard Terrace. Perched on a hillside near downtown Bellingham, Orchard Terrace is so called for its old, knotted apple trees, remnants of those planted by John Bennett in the late 1800s. Bennett created the “the old orchard place” upon buying the parcel from Captain James W. Tarte, who in 1870 enlisted 20 Chinese miners from nearby Sehome to clear the land of its native fir and cedar trees.

I take comfort in knowing the land I sleep on each night. Through that intimacy, I feel affection for the place. I feel at home. How “at home” might we all feel if we knew our county´s stories as intimately as those in our own backyard?

Whatcom County Names

In his 1971 book, “Washington State Place Names,” (University of Washington Press) James W. Phillips remarks that Washington “is the only state in the nation to be named after a President, the only one created under the Constitution that departs from the established practice of adapting its name from a local native word, geographical feature, or regional term in common usage … (although) that final designation was initially clouded with alternate suggestions: Tahoma, Columbia, and Washingtonia.”

Intrigued? Whatcom County place names have equally interesting histories. Natives, trappers, settlers, and explorers bestowed countless names on the area with marked influences in Spanish, French, Anglo-American, and many Indian languages. Some have little to do with the geographic character of the place, yet all contribute to its present-day identity. Here are a few examples from Phillips´ book:

A Call for Submissions

What place name stories do you know? Consider a local town, mountain, or stream, as well as your own neighborhood or street. “Fish Out of Water” requests submissions on the topic of Whatcom County place names. Send your stories, ideas, or comments to “Fish Out of Water,” care of Whatcom Watch. Please limit your submissions to 300 words or less.

Forest Practices

Todd Creek High Risk Projects are a Hazard to Neighbors and Fish-Bearing Streams

by John DiGregoria

Map of the area.

Recently I have read personally directed critiques (Whatcom Watch, December 1998, page 14) of my September 1998 article (Whatcom Watch, page 3) concerning hillslope failures at Todd Creek that fed sediment to the South Fork Nooksack River. It saddens me that we must write in attack mode instead of story/fact mode. I apologize for a brief attack; then we can get back to the story/fact.

Having reread my September article, I can understand that some of the language appeared ambiguous. This could have led to misinterpreting my story about Todd Creek. After reading Crown´s prescriptions for the Acme Watershed Analysis, I thought they understood clearly the language of ambiguity. It appears that my credibility as a critic of forest practices is questioned by Mr. Chamberlain in his December article. Mr. Chamberlain portrayed himself as the expert in the facts yet he never discusses the real issues. Three high risk projects in the headwaters of the same creek were conducted simultaneously. All three projects failed during the same rain storm. The failures resulted in sediment flowing down all three tributaries and through the mainstem of Todd Creek and finally into the South Fork Nooksack River. State officials inspecting the damage named the three culvert project failures Ugly 1, Ugly 2 and Ugly 3.

It´s nice to hear Ian Smith write about “such diverse rich public debate in the newspaper with a grassroots conscience.” Mr. Smith asks some excellent questions concerning forest management and expresses his ideals on ecoforestry. However, Mr. Smith does little to clarify the truth.

Sayers of Truth?

Mr. Smith states “the three stream crossings were re-opened, a late spring storm caused the re-activation of old slide debris across the inner gorge of the upslope sides of all three, exposed crossings.” Mr. Smith goes on to agree with Mr. Chamberlain that “the new culverts did not blow out or plug, and traffic continued to pass.” I´m confused about the truth of Mr. Smith´s statements. Were the crossings reopened or was the culvert and roadbed in place? It is not obvious from these two statements both written in the same paragraph.

It is quite humorous that Mr. Chamberlain´s title for his attack-the-messenger article is “Crown Pacific´s Work is Protecting Todd Creek.” Crown has built miles of new and reconstructed roads up the front of and across the top of Todd Creek. They have clear-cut harvested throughout the watershed, and the unstable cutslopes associated with the three culvert projects failed during the same precipitation event delivering sediment to the South Fork Nooksack River. What are they protecting? I don´t know; do you?

To begin, Mr. Chamberlain states that “the 7200-foot road Mr. DiGregoria refers to was rebuilt.” I wholly agree with Mr. Chamberlain as I previously stated “[i]n the headwaters of Todd Creek, 7200 ft. of road reconstruction and 5400 ft of new road were built to allow access for the harvesting of 33 percent of a 26-acre unit.”

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Chamberlain are correct when stating that the drainage pipes and adjoining road bed at Ugly 1, 2, and 3 did not fail. I never stated that these parts of the culvert project failed. I can see the confusion that Mr. Chamberlain had when reading that “[t]hree different stream crossings in the headwaters of Todd Creek have all failed during the same precipitation event.” Without reading on, one could assume that I am about to describe the drainage pipe and adjoining road bed blowing out down the hill.

What I do describe is, “[a] major component of the culvert projects entailed cutting into, then armoring the upslope of the catch basins with boulders. The boulder armor is intended to stabilize the cutslope while reducing sediment delivery to the stream.” I also open the article with “[r]ecent forestry-related road-building activity, combined with summer thunderstorms, has caused hillslope failures to deliver sediment to the South Fork Nooksack River.”

For a further twist on words (a crime committed by all three parties involved in this contest), confusion arises when I use the term culvert and blowout in the same phrase as in “culvert project blowout.” I guess in Deforestation school, the terms culvert and blowout occuring in the same sentence implies that the drainage pipe and adjoining roadbed failed. I humbly apologize to Mr. C and Mr. Smith for misleading them.

In this instance each culvert project included replacing the existing drainage pipe with one large enough to allow debris flows to pass, reinforcing the roadbed around the roadbed to prevent debris flows from washing the roadbed out, and a catch basin abutting the upside of the drainage pipe to catch part of the debris flow. During the alleged storm, the blowouts occurred when each of the three exposed catch basins´ cutslopes failed from heavy rains soaking into and further destabilizing them. The failing hillslope debris slid and slumped into each catch basin, flowed through the oversized drainage pipe designed specifically for such an event, and blew out from the downslope side of the drainage pipe.

We could argue all day about the semantics of truth, but that gets boring since truth is based on perception. It is apparent to me that journalism is writing a story about an event that actually occurred. It is rare that all truths associated with a journalistic story are presented. We all spin and twist in our battles to create or repress change.

Back to the Story

Enough attack mode journalism. It reminds me of election campaigns where no one discusses the issues — they just attack each other. What I will attempt to do here is to first reconstruct the story according to all of the input to date and then I will provide new information in the continuing saga of Todd Creek hillslope failures.

Crown reconstructed three type 4 stream crossings simultaneously along the same stretch of road. The projects occurred in each of Todd Creek´s three tributaries. Each project entailed removing the existing drainage pipe from the crossing. New oversized drainage pipes were installed with adjoining roadbed and surface. Each project also entailed creating a catch basin adjoining the uphill side of the reconstructed roadbed.

While cutting into the uphill slopes of the catch basin and before armament could be installed, a precipitation event occurred where storm water saturated the destabilized cutslopes causing them to fall into the catch basins. The debris in all three catch basins blew out through the oversized drainage pipe spewing mud downslope and eventually into the South Fork Nooksack River.

River Farm monitoring immediately after the failures resulted in readings that went off of the turbidity meter for sediment. To me this seems like a violation of the Clean Water Act since it degrades rather than maintains fishable waters.

A reference to Todd Creek in my December article is quite specific. “When Department of Natural Resources field personnel visited Ugly 1, 2, and 3 and talked with the equipment operator placing the rock” (conditions of repair to stop the hillslope failure) “ the equipment operator stated he was only going to place rock up as far as the excavator could reach. The Department of Natural Resources´ forester informed the operator that this did not satisfy the prescriptions and that the entire failure required rock.”

More recent observations of Ugly 1, 2, and 3 and general forest practices in the Todd Creek watershed have shown wind-blow landslides along the borders of recent clearcuts. The recent November gales (and the ones in December and January) have shown that new Crown prescriptions for buffering steep slopes are a failure (more on this later). These observations have also shown that the armored cutslope of Ugly 3 is starting to fracture along the top.

I do look forward to further public debate about environmental issues and concerns in Whatcom County. I hope that we can move away from attack-the-messenger journalism, which only distracts us from the real issues.

Mr. Chamberlain appears confused about my motives for critiquing forest practices. I am not against logging nor am I against maintaining a viable local economy based on forest resource extraction. What I am concerned about is:

1. accelerated harvesting where multiple high risk projects are conducted simultaneously,

2. a complete lack of consideration for the welfare of neighbors living downslope from timber operations, including fish,

3. having the debt associated with the purchase of timberlands by Crown from Trillium driving the rate of cutting and the style of management,

4. the fact that outside contractors, some from as far away as Colorado, are participating in the accelerated cutting and road building, eliminating future work for local forestry contractors,

5. the way in which Crown continues to cut corners by moving boundary markers down into the bedrock hollows and steep slopes along the upper reaches of the foothill´s inner gorges,

6. the fact that liquidation forestry corporation stock holders do not pay tax on their profit, and

7. the fact that as Mr. Chamberlain writes “grants from Federal Emergency Management Agency and Centennial Clean Water Fund helped pay for this reconstruction.” There is nothing like corporate tax breaks and subsidies to make you feel better about paying taxes.

The real question is whose property do we protect? The people who live here and the nation´s waters, or the property of fly-by-night (how many in how many years) liquidation forestry corporations. It is obvious that Mr. Chamberlain can expect further profit from tax-free dividends but it is not at all obvious what Mr. Smith expects.

I believe that Crown will string the River Farm along, dangling the ecoforestry carrot in an attempt to appease their trusting neighbors, and in the end will liquidate the remaining trees above the farm just prior to selling back to Trillium, which has an open option to buy back a good portion of Stewart Mountain fifteen years after Crown´s purchase.

Again, I apologize for any ambiguity that led to misinterpreting the story of Todd Creek. I also apologize for taking up good newspaper space to clear up any misunderstanding of the facts. Sediment delivery through and to fishable waters is a clear violation of the Clean Water Act´s objective of maintaining the biological, physical, and chemical integrity of fishable waters.

Crown will not be any happier with this article than they have with any of my past articles. If they change their ways and begin implementing forest practices that realistically take into account the neighboring communities´ welfare and our natural resources, then I will no longer have fodder for articles. As long as they continue on their current path, there will be plenty of stories to tell.


Initiative to Protect Lake Whatcom on Track

by Tim Paxton
Tim Paxton has lived in Bellingham for 20 years. He is a former president of the North Cascades Audubon Society.

The Initiative Group is moving ahead with plans to gather approximately 3700 signatures for the proposal to buy up land within the Lake Whatcom Watersheds. (A detailed web site is up for your viewing at www.nas.com/tig .)

New Proposed Title on Initiative

“Shall the City of Bellingham protect the Lake Whatcom Watersheds as a drinking water source through buying forested lands and related actions, with dedicated funds from water user fees?”

The proposal as simplified would:

An earlier requirement for a $40 million dollar bond issue has been set aside. The watershed committee would still have that option, however, if appropriate.

The simple goal is to provide funding to begin to acquire land over an eighty to one hundred year period to protect the sole drinking water supply for Bellingham and most of Whatcom County.

Recent Activities of The Initiative Group

In January, 1999, final wording of the proposed ordinance had been simplified and revised to make it an easy-to-understand and easy-to-pass proposition. Please visit the web site for exact wording. (www.nas.com/tig) Many people, both private citizens and in government have provided thoughtful input and debate about the goals and wording of this initiative.

Recently, members of the group have continued presentations and meetings with citizen groups around Bellingham. Presentations about the proposal and Lake Whatcom have been given to six Bellingham neighborhood groups, The Bellingham Herald editorial board members, all City and County Council members, the mayor, county executive, and most major department heads of both city and county.

Articles have appeared in The Bellingham Herald, Whatcom Watch, The Every Other Weekly, The Western Front, and The Planet. KGMI has played interviews; KVOS has shown brief segments about the proposal and covered watershed planning meetings.

Presentations have been given to boards of organizations and endorsements are starting to roll in. As we print finalized copies of the exact wording, we expect to receive more endorsements from key groups and individuals.

Response from citizens attending the presentations has been very positive with good questions and comments. Many of the more commonly asked questions are in a Frequently Asked Questions section of the web site.

Citizen´s Watershed Proposal Needed More Urgently

In the past few months, since we began this proposal, several key events have occurred which make the passing of this initiative more urgent.

The County Council voted to begin plans for a new $20+ million dollar, four-lane road into the watershed. This would represent more subsidies for insiders and land speculators polluting the water supply. The City of Bellingham showed some backbone and actually opposed this study. Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen has vetoed the plan but may be out-maneuvered by the County Council.

Sudden Valley received the go-ahead to begin expanding its sewer connector to add a potential 20,000 more residents on the west side of Lake Whatcom within the watershed.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources, doing what it is told to do by the state, said it is headed to a program to clearcut more than 10,000 acres in the watershed.

The Lake Whatcom Watershed management committee dedicated almost all of its funding to fund a study for a storm water management effort in the watershed. Unfortunately there are no guarantees that this project may actually remove the contaminants. It is another study to join the dozens of other no-action studies on the shelf. The cost of this project will be another subsidy to developers who made the mess in the watershed.

Bellingham City Council´s Position

A letter was sent in October, 1998, to the Bellingham City Council asking for a chance to simply present a summary of the plan to an appropriate committee on the City Council. This letter has received no response. The City Council declines to allow us to present the idea to the council.

You can draw you own conclsions about just how much the mayor and City Council truly care about citizen-generated proposals.

Call for Volunteers

In March, April and May 1999, an initiative signature drive will commence. We will need you as a volunteer to help gather signatures from friends, offices, and even on street corners and at stores and public events.

Approximately 3700 signatures are needed to place this before the City Council. They can either immediately pass it, pass an alternative or simply refer it to the electorate for a vote. If they present an alternative, they must place both on the fall ballot.

We urge you to please take a few minutes to get more familiar with the issues. Read the Fall 1998 edition of The Planet from Western Washington University for a detailed summary of the issues in the Lake Whatcom watersheds. Visit our web site. Give us a call; we are happy to discuss all ideas and comments.

Our thanks for the many positive suggestions & comments supporting our efforts to get this idea before the voters.

The Initiative Group message phone 752-0090.

See our revised website: Protect Lake Whatcom http://www.nas.com/tig/


Recomp Infectious Waste Handling Poses Serious Risk

by Barbara Brenner
Barbara Brenner is a member of the Whatcom County Council.

The December,1998, Whatcom Watch (page 12) contained an article by Recomp entitled, “Setting the Record Straight.” Instead, Recomp inaccurately portrayed the dangerous state of infectious waste handling in our community.

1. Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) is an international infectious waste corporation with a long history of multimillion dollar fines and convictions for serious violations. Browning-Ferris is not “only a customer of Recomp,” according to BFI´s own written statement to the Washington State Senate Medical Waste Committee. Browning-Ferris Industries stated that it handles the infectious waste at Recomp. Furthermore, Recomp´s own plan of operation identifies Browning-Ferris´ infectious waste handling at the plant.

2. Infectious waste containers leak at Recomp on a regular basis according to the workers. Infectious waste is not always “sealed in puncture-proof containers.” Much of it arrives in leaking, soggy cardboard boxes.

3. While infectious waste represents only a small portion of the general waste stream, co-mingling it with non-infectious waste, as routinely occurs, creates more infectious waste. You can´t just separate out the microbes once it is mixed. Furthermore, it is a small portion of the national waste stream, but a very large portion of our county´s. Whatcom County produces about eight tons of medical waste per month. Recomp is accepting more than 300 tons of medical waste per month. According to the Washington State Health Department officials, the bigger the dose, the bigger the risk.

4. Recomp has been cited and fined by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for the same types of serious infectious waste handling violations that caused tuberculosis in workers at another regional infectious waste facility. Tracking infection among workers is extremely difficult. Infectious waste companies depend on the desperation and transient condition of workers to continue their risky operations.

5. Recomp´s plan of operation is not “detailed.” For example, the plan defines “autoclave” as “a method to decontaminate medical waste.” That does not define “autoclave,” which is supposed to be a method of steam sterilization. Furthermore, the plan promotes repeated direct worker exposure to infectious waste.

6. Workers at Recomp have claimed they became infected by handling infectious waste. Presently, a worker has retained an attorney to defend his claim. Recomp´s infectious waste operation is risky.

7. Recomp will never “produce zero emissions” with its autoclave. Autoclaves produce emissions. Recomp´s autoclave was disassembled in British Columbia and reassembled here. In British Columbia, the autoclave produced verified emissions according to the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

8. No methods to destroy pathogens are any safer than the intent of the corporations operating the facilities.

9. Recomp´s large-scale autoclave is not required to “sterilize” pathogens. Hospitals and clinics do require sterilization. At best, Recomp´s operation is allowed to leave a residual amount of pathogens alive. Multiplied by the large-scale operation, there is a huge infection risk to the workers and the community. Recomp´s claim of complete destruction of pathogens is simply not true nor even required. Individual infectious waste boxes are unique in composition. Many contain large amounts of plastic which prevent steam penetration and destruction of pathogens. Recomp´s “spore test” only tests the spores in a carefully controlled, empty container, not in the center of a box of infectious waste. The results provide no assurance that all infectious waste is adequately sterilized.

10. Recomp plans to maintain a valid incinerator permit, in addition to the giant infectious waste autoclave it just installed. The potential for increased infection risk is astounding.

11. I have never heard anyone say “we should ship all medical waste out of the county, right from the start.” Recomp is attempting to cloud the issue with a non-existent NIMBY argument. Whatcom County residents believe we have a responsibility to handle our percentage of the infectious waste stream.What most people don´t want in our back yard is massive amounts of infectious waste with the much greater risks they pose.

12. There is no attempt “to control or limit the flow of medical waste.” My draft legislation, which has now become an initiative, limits the amount of infectious waste which can be accepted at local facilities. Infectious waste is a small but dangerous portion of the medical waste stream. My draft legislation is legal, having been publicly supported by national and local law firms. Ironically, the case mentioned by Recomp against “flow control” was “declared unconstitutional” in spite of Recomp. Recomp threatened to sue the county if we did not enforce “flow control.” Luckily, Recomp´s competitor forced the issue.

13. Recomp´s shell game claim that regular garbage poses a higher danger from infectious waste lacks validity. Of course regular garbage can contain infectious material. However, regulated infectious waste poses a significantly higher risk than regular garbage, according to Wayne Turnberg, director of the Washington State Infectious Waste Project and writer of books on the subject. I will debate Recomp´s president, Frank Moscone, anytime on the infectious waste issue. I was recently invited to debate him on KGMI. He didn´t show up. Please contact me at 384-2762 for more information. This issue affects all of us.


Lummi Nation Program Restores Salmon Habitat Throughout County

by Jim Hansen
Jim Hansen is Lummi Natural Resources Restoration Program Coordinator.

During 1998, efforts on multiple fronts were carried out to continue restoration of fish habitat in the Nooksack Watershed. The Lummi Natural Resources staff worked on a variety of sites. The following is a summary of their efforts during the past year. Dislocated fisheries and timber workers were trained in the skills necessary to carry out scientific measurements and project implementation.


Lummi Nation Tribal Member Runs for Conservation District Board

by Frank Bob

My name is Frank E. Bob. I am an enrolled tribal member of the Lummi Nation and have been a lifetime resident of Bellingham, WA. In November, 1998, a seat on the Whatcom County Conservation District Board of Supervisors became available when a current board member was hired by the Conservation District. I applied for the position and was accepted.

Now the position that I have filled is up for re-election. The election will take place on March 1, 1999. The polling site will be at the Whatcom County Court House in Bellingham, WA, and also at the Conservation District office on Hannegan Road. The Conservation District office is a little north, past the Pole Road on the left-hand side of Hannegan Road.

I am currently employed by the Lummi Indian Business Council within the Natural Resources Department as a Habitat Restoration Assistant. In this position I work for the preservation and protection of our natural resources.

This work includes protecting our streams and river systems from excess sedimentation input through bank and slope stabilization, re-vegetation projects, riparian enhancement projects, re-establishing and widening riparian buffer zones, retiring old logging roads, removal of old wooden puncheon bridge culverts, culvert removal and replacements, and storm-proofing logging roads. I have worked with various local and governmental agencies and with timber owners and private land owners.

Prior to that I worked in the water resources section; my job title was Water Resources Technician. I was trained to take over the surface and ground water monitoring program. In this position, I was trained to monitor the water levels of wells within the boundaries of Lummi Reservation. I was also trained to measure various kinds of water quality parameters such as pH, chloride, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbidity, and salinity, following quality assurance and quality control protocols.

I have read a number of acts pertaining to our environment such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the State Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Forest Practices Act, the Clean Air Act, Shoreline Development Act, and the Washington State Growth Management Act.

I have also completed Water Resources Technician Training, Wetland Delineation Training, and training in the Geographic Information System with Arcview 3.0a, Global Positioning System. I have attended many restoration enhancement workshops and conventions in my three years of employment with the Lummi Indian Business Council. I am also presently the vice chair of the Lummi Nation Housing Board and have had training in Indian housing law.

I have the ability to work with people of different backgrounds because I have been doing so my entire life, as a resident of Bellingham. I believe that my job experience, communication skills, and training will allow me to hold this position well. I also believe that I have a great deal of creative input to offer.

So on Monday, March 1, 1999, please cast your vote for me. I feel that by being elected to this position, I will be accomplishing something that has never been accomplished before — a Native American elected to the Whatcom Conservation District Board of Supervisors for the first time ever.

Thank you for allowing me this much of your most valuable time. I am looking forward to working for all of you in the near future.

Lake Whatcom

Voices of Concern

by Darby Bramble
Darby Bramble is currently a senior at the Huxley College of Environmental Sciences focusing on education.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Fall 1998 issue of The Planet.

Map of area.

It has been a turbulent past eight months for Jaime Berg who, along with her neighbor Linda Marrom, has been thrust to the forefront of Whatcom County politics. For Berg, it began in early March and on a recent blustery afternoon she appears tired yet exudes positive determination.

“We heard the huge blasts of dynamite,” Berg says, of the first clue that something “big” was going on just above the homes off Lake Louise Road in Sudden Valley where she resides. After a few days of research, Berg and Marrom discovered that the Washington State Department of Natural Resources was preparing the road around Austin Flat, a 212 acre lot, for a timber sale.

Initially concerned only about the logging traffic in their residential neighborhood, they took time out of their lives to become a voice for the people of the area. They´ve since accumulated 3,000 signatures for a petition asking the Department of Natural Resources to postpone the sale of the Austin Flat area, made frequent visits to Olympia and spent countless hours on the telephone lobbying. Their concern has escalated.

Troubled over the implications of clear-cutting one of the most sensitive areas in the Lake Whatcom Watershed, Berg and Marrom have made great efforts to deter the possibilities of serious flooding, degradation of native fish habitat and pollution of the public´s drinking water supply. Centralized in their tight-knit community that organizes flu shots and weekend pancake breakfasts, the dedicated suburban mothers have become public figureheads in the movement to stop the clear-cut of Austin Flat.

Sitting on the back porch of her home on the lush green slopes above Lake Whatcom, Berg said she has a lot to be thankful for.

“My kids are growing up in a place I always dreamed about,” says Berg, a native of Louisiana who is still adjusting to the abundance of the Northwest. “You have the trees, you have the water and the fish …. You have a nice, happy place to live.”

But the Department of Natural Resources´ proposed clear-cut of the Austin Flat area, including a section of Austin Creek, one of the largest tributaries flowing into Lake Whatcom, makes her question the safety of the forest, the fish and her neighbors — the very things she cherishes.

Austin Flat

The Austin Flat area is a small parcel of the 11,000 acres within the Lake Whatcom Watershed that the Department of Natural Resources has set-aside for future timber harvest. The land that comprises Austin Flat was part of the biggest public land swap in the history of Washington State.

The Trillium Corporation traded over 9,000 acres in the Lake Whatcom watershed with the Department of Natural Resources. Austin Flat is administered by the Natural Resources using a system called the Forest Board Transfer trust, which mandates that the Department of Natural Resources manage the acreage much in the same way as state forest lands.

According to Resources, the Department of Natural Resources newsletter, the distinction of the Forest Board Transfer Lands is that 75 percent of the profits from the acreage go directly into the home county purse. Almost three-fourths of the proceeds from the clear-cut of the Austin Flat timber sale will go directly to Whatcom County to help to fund roads, hospitals, libraries and fire districts.

Berg and Marrom question whether the profits from the sale of Austin Flat are worth the possible damages that might come from clear-cutting the land within the county´s most important watershed.

Landslide Follows Clearcut

Berg and Marrom have seen the results of a Department of Natural Resources clear-cut firsthand in the photos of Joanne Dellen´s home in eastern Washington near Colville. The flooding that ravaged Dellen´s land is evident in a collection of snapshots that illustrate the costly damages to her property. Mud, small trees and other landslide debris cover the area that was once her yard. The family car, a grey mini-van, hangs precariously over the chasm left where a large chunk of the concrete driveway was washed from its foundation to reveal enormous naked culverts. A sign, propped up against the mess left by the flood, proclaims in bold letters, “Landscaping Provided by the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), et. al.”

“The road up to our house was almost completely lost in the flood,” says Dellen, who has since sold her home in eastern Washington to relocate to Bellingham.

Dellen believes the intensity of the flood that inundated her property was a direct result of the Department of Natural Resources clear-cut above her land. She contacted Berg and Marrom because she didn´t want the Department of Natural Resources to make the same mistake again.

Disaster in ´83 Caused by Logging

Clear-cutting the Austin Flat area has the potential to be just as destructive as the logging above Dellen´s home, according to the Lake Whatcom Watershed Analysis. Composed by the Department of Natural Resources, the analysis says, “The land within our watershed [which includes the Austin Flat area] has an inherent natural instability and forest practices have exacerbated naturally unstable conditions.”

In January of 1983, about 8 billion gallons of water and 65 acres of timber debris flowed into Lake Whatcom from the slopes around the lake. Homes and local roads were decimated by the torrential flows. The county declared the situation a disaster area and the flooding eventually cost the county $8 million. Previous logging was held responsible for severity of the flood and forestry companies, including the Department of Natural Resources, were slapped with heavy lawsuits.

Without the stabilization and absorbency provided by tree roots, precipitation percolates through the sandy soil and flows directly above the smooth, impregnable bedrock. Even the smallest amounts of rain or snow can result in flooding, landslides and the erosion of stream banks.

Austin Creek Important for Spawning of Native Fish

Austin Creek is an important spawning ground for native species of fish like cutthroat trout and kokanee salmon. For years, Lake Whatcom has been a nursery for these native fish, a “mother source” that produces fish to seed other lakes.

This tradition may be coming to an end soon, says Jim Johnson, a fisheries biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The last primary spawn of native cutthroat trout was 10 percent of what it was in 1987, and there has been an entire elimination of native kokannee spawning,” Johnson said, at a recent public meeting. He worries that logging near the section of Austin Creek in the Austin Flat area might further degrade the critically impaired aquatic system.

Drinking Water Quality Affected by Austin Creek

Austin Creek holds other important considerations. The creek flows directly into Lake Whatcom, which provides drinking water for 66,000 people — nearly half the residents of Whatcom County.

Though Lake Whatcom currently provides the county with relatively clean water, there has been alarming speculation about the rapid deterioration of the lake´s water supply.

“We need to preserve (our) streams and tributaries. We have to take a look at if the Nooksack Diversion is reduced, the tributaries will play a larger role in the water quality of the lake,” Berg said.

Currently, the diversion of water from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River into Lake Whatcom acts like a “flushing system” bringing pure water into the lake. However, with recent developments in the Endangered Species Act, tribal water rights and problems with low flow in the Nooksack Basin, the future of Lake Whatcom´s source of clean, fresh water has been questioned.

As more development has occurred on Austin Creek, water samples have shown increasing levels of fecal coliform and cryptosporidium. Clear-cutting around the creek would only magnify the water quality problems on the tributary that plays an increasingly important role in determining the condition of the county´s drinking water.

Impact of Forest Practices

The Department of Ecology reports that one of the single largest causes of water quality problems throughout the state is the elevated aquatic temperatures occurring most often by harvesting timber on lands near water sources.

“Granted, Lake Whatcom clear-cutting or forestry is not the big culprit in the water quality issue, like development, but it is another one of those cumulative effects,” Berg said. “Why not eliminate one effect when it is so easy to pinpoint its source?”

At a recent community meeting, Bill Wallace, northwest regional director of the Department of Natural Resources, acknowledged past forest practices near Austin Flat area have “degraded stream and riparian conditions while creating unstable slopes.”

To offset the sensitivity of the Austin Flat area, he spoke of some of the Department of Natural Resources plans created by government experts to minimize the impact on the area within the Lake Whatcom watershed. Using the guidelines proposed in a habitat conservation plan, the Department of Natural Resources hopes to protect the viability of the public land for the next 70- to-100 years. The current habitat conservation plan devised by department scientists specifies that loggers must leave a 100-150 foot buffer around the sensitive periphery of Austin Creek.

Another Department of Natural Resources strategy to minimize the impact on the Austin Creek is the Watershed Analysis, which Wallace says addresses the cumulative effects of logging and develops reparation plans for all forest lands in the Watershed. The Department of Natural Resources had originally hoped to sell the Austin Flat area for timber harvest last June but has postponed the sale until next year.

Despite the Department of Natural Resources´ attempts to minimize the impact on the Austin Creek area, Berg and Marrom were not won over by the agency´s promises. The more they found out about the Department of Natural Resources´s plans, the more intent they are in stopping the timber sale.

With the help of experts such as Johnson and Professor David Wallin of Huxley College, Berg and Marrom compiled information to substantiate their reservations about the Department of Natural Resources´ clear-cut of the Austin Flat site.

“Normal people don´t listen to the scientists,” Berg said. “They listen to two women or they listen to two common people who have gone through recent information and who give it to them in layman terms.”

Involving and educating the community is the foundation of Berg and Marrom´s quest to halt the sale of the Austin Flat area. As their petition to the Department of Natural Resources made its way throughout Whatcom County, circulating everywhere from their quiet Sudden Valley neighborhood to the bustling campus of Western Washington University, the activists publicized the plight of the Austin Flat in articles and editorials in The Bellingham Herald.

Local Politicians Visit Austin Flat

In an effort to recruit local support, Berg and Marrom invited some of the most influential people in local politics to tour the steep topography of Austin Flat. Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen, Bellingham City Council Members Louise Bjornson and Barbara Ryan, Senator Harriet Spanel and State Representative Jeff Morris participated in the forestry walk. It was a success.

“I believe Austin Flats has some unique characteristics that make it questionable that this could go forward,” said Kremen, of the timber sale.

State Mandates Timber Harvest

Jennifer Belcher, head of the Department of Natural Resources, said in a recent community meeting that she has little choice when it comes to stopping forest practices around Lake Whatcom.

The state must generate money from land dedicates to forestry.” Belcher said. Excluding the purchase of property by the county or some other entity, state law mandates that the Austin Flat area be harvested.

“To those that want to stop timber harvesting., I would say I don´t have any good answers for you.” she said.

Belcher´s response was not good enough for the many local officials who have decided to pursue the Austin Flat issue.

Recently, the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, Mayor Asmundson, Water District 10 and the Whatcom County Council announced they are in the process of appealing the permit for Austin Creek at the Forest Practices Board in Olympia.

“If the appeal does not get Belcher´s approval, then the matter is likely to become an issue in the courts,” Berg said. “We´ve still got a long way to go.”


Lake Whatcom´s Future Hinges on Land Use Decisions

by Alex McLean
Alex McLean is a student at Western Washington University.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Fall 1998 issue of The Planet.

Outside the room, a steady October rain falls. Through the windows the audience watches as percolating sheets of water chase gravity down the streets, down sidewalks and into sewer and storm drains. A random assortment of uncomfortable chairs, occupied by uncomfortable people, line the back of the room. As the audience members wait they talk, organize notebooks and steal glances at the clock.

When Judge Micheal Bobbink enters the room, he chooses the best seat in the house — the one with his nameplate in front of it — and taps his microphone.

“Conditional Use Permit 98-0031, Continuation of Public Hearing on September 9 and September 16,” Bobbink says.

The audience inside the Whatcom County Courthouse Annex is here to address the debate about a Conditional Use Permit for installing a new sewer line “interceptor” in the Lake Louise Road area of Lake Whatcom. The real debate here is not only about sewer lines, however, but about the large housing development that this particular sewer line would “intercept.”

Whether the land is used for sewer lines, logging, recreation or housing developments, the meaty core of the issues of Lake Whatcom´s Watershed revolve around land use decisions.

Swimming in Complexity

The Growth Management Act, State Environmental Protection Act, Land Use Planning Act, Clean Water Act, Shoreline Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Forest Practices Act and treaties with local tribes are just some of the federal laws applicable to Lake Whatcom. Add our city and county zoning regulations into the mix — with attendant rules for roads, sewers and other facilities — and it is easy to see how battles over landuse decisions proliferate.

If only one thing has been proven from the hundreds of meetings and years of legal entanglements involving Lake Whatcom, it is that land use issues are complicated.

The shores of Lake Whatcom splash against both City of Bellingham and Whatcom County properties. Austin, Brannian, Fir, Anderson, Smith, Olsen and Carpenter are creeks that feed into the lake. A pipeline occasionally “flushes” the lake from a separate watershed surrounding the Nooksack River. There are various logging properties or housing developments, which drain into the lake´s three water basins.

Lake Whatcom supplies water to more than 66,000 residents. Since the watershed occupies more than 35,000 acres, land uses within its border have many overlapping impacts. Logging above houses, for example, may threaten those homes by erosion while simultaneously increasing the amount of runoff in the area.

The debates may stem from land use issues, but the real issue involves clean, fresh drinking water.

Whatcom County v. Growth Management Act

The Growth Management Act was enacted in 1990, with strong support from conservative republicans. The Growth Management Act was designed to mitigate urban planning pitfalls.

Despite the inherent complexities of land use laws, the Growth Management Act has some simply defined goals for counties to meet. The primary purpose of the Act is to encourage Urban Growth Areas in ways that reduce sprawl and protect natural resources.

After designing a 20 year land use strategy, counties then submit their plans before hearings boards. In Whatcom County, the review board was the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

Plan Receives Failing Grade

When Whatcom County submitted its plan for urban growth around Lake Whatcom, the board rejected it as invalid. There are three levels, compliance, non-compliance and invalid. In essence, the board gave Whatcom County´s plan a failing mark.

In 1995, the board´s report noted that efforts made by planners had “Established Whatcom County´s failure to even consider attempts to comply.”

“Another egregious example of the interim Urban Growth Areas lack of analysis is demonstrated by the ‘Geneva´ area of the Bellingham interim Urban Growth Areas. The record demonstrated that water resources and watershed impacts in the Geneva area had reached critical deficiencies…. Nonetheless, the area was designated for urban growth through an ‘interim´ growth area ordinance,” the board said in 1996.

 The County Council was wrestling with a dilemma at the time. There were already people living in the watershed and many property owners had purchased land in the region.

“They bought that land with the expectation that they´d be able to build,” says Robert Imhof, County Council member. “Unless we want to come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars to buy them all out, which would be the alternative, the next best thing is to put regulations in place that will safeguard the water.”

Geneva as an Urban Growth Area

County planner Sylvia Goodwin believes that designating the Geneva neighborhood as a Urban Growth Area would meet the goal of the Growth Management Act to prevent urban sprawl.

“Our argument is that since it´s already there, sub-divided and partially developed, it makes more sense to include it in the city´s Urban Growth Areas so that urban level stormwater management, police protection, roads, sidewalks — all of those things that cities are well set for — can be provided,” Goodwin says. “That´s why we put Geneva in the City of Bellingham because whatever you call it, its going to be urban. It already is urban.”

There are some people, however, who don´t want Geneva to become Bellingham´s responsibility.

City v. County

“It´s a well know fact that urban development has a negative impact on the lake,” says Louise Bjornson, city council member. “Seattle has a watershed that you can´t even walk in. We not only walk in ours, we also play in it, build in it, lots of things which put heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides into the water. We even have an airport right in the watershed.”

Bjornson worries the designation of Geneva as an Urban Growth Area will put additional stress on both the lake and the city´s tax dollars.

This area would put roads — which means more impervious surface area, more people, more housing — in an area that would be very difficult for the city to provide services for,” Bjornson says.

Goodwin, however, says she believes that further development in the Geneva Urban Growth Area would be less costly than the alternative of buying houses. Her argument echoes the opinions of Imhof and others on the County Council.

“You also have to look at the future of your drinking water supply,” Bjornson says. “We already have a very expensive water filtration plant cleaning the water from Lake Whatcom but as more urban development happens around the lake we need to ask what kind of expenses are we going to have to add to that filtration plant, because you still can´t take out pesticides and herbicides.”

Dr. Robin Mathews and Dr. Richard Horner, both of whom are experts in lake studies, have testified that urban runoff is currently threatening the safety of our drinking supply and that increasing urbanization could dramatically threaten water quality.

Even the people testifying in favor of sewer lines or property rights concede that some negative impacts will unavoidably result from increased development.

Back to the Sewers

The hearing for Conditional Use Permit 98-0031 is where the legal and political wranglings filter down to the citizens.

Sherilyn Wells´ name tops the list of parties involved at the sewer hearing. As president of the Clean Water Alliance she has been at the forefront of citizens´ concerns for the future of Bellingham´s water supply. Wells has been criticized for her tenacity on watershed issues. Some believe she files appeals simply to stop development. Wells, however, notes that her arguments have been well supported by the legal system.

“The fact that we prevailed again last time, on so many things, ought to be a red light to folks who have been tracking this thing,” Wells says. “The county´s plan has to be so incredibly bad for them to still find invalidity — especially in this political climate.”

“She´s taken it upon herself to decide there should be no building here,” says Vincent D´Onofrio, a Sudden Valley resident.

“I think that the county and the city, recognizing that the lake is the water supply for 66,000 people, can allow development within the Growth Management Act,” he continues, “and not step on the rights of the people who already own the land.”

Wells and the Clean Water Alliance do not question the rights of property owners to build on their lots. What concerns these environmentalists is the location and scale of the county´s Urban Growth Areas in the watershed.

The numbers can fluctuate wildly and nobody claims to know them for certain, but the estimates from the county´s plans range from 4,500 - 7,000 new homes in the watershed in the next 20 years. At this rate, upwards of 20,000 additional residents will be living, driving, using fertilizers and pesticides and building new roads and sewer lines within the watershed.

D´Onofrio has lived in Sudden Valley for eight years and he currently heads the architectural control committee for that private neighborhood of 1,720 homes. D´Onofrio claims that Sudden Valley, which borders Geneva, has even more stringent environmental guidelines than those required by the county zoning.

“Sudden Valley has been getting a bad rap for a long time,” D´Onofrio says. “This is the only community on the lake that requires a stormwater detention system around every house. No lots can have more than 50 percent of the permeable soil covered by construction and our covenants demand that every tree that is cut be accounted for by the Control Committee to make sure the lots are not defoliated.”

Despite these environmental considerations, D´Onofrio still has not been allowed to build houses. The debate over sewer lines has resulted in a six-year building moratorium. This has stymied D´Onofrio´s plans to put houses on five lots.

“My plan was to build houses, rent them out and eventually sell them as a nest egg for my retirement,” D´Onofrio says. “I´ve had to sell two lots because the plan went down the tubes. In effect, there´s about $250 thousand that won´t be in my retirement fund.

“Whoever it is that wants to stop the building in Sudden Valley,” he continues, “have them come out and buy the lots at a reasonable price. That´s the only right way to do it.”

This may be the only point that both Wells and the property owners agree on.

“I would say we should start buying the undeveloped land now,” Wells says, “most particularly around Geneva and Sudden Valley. Then, after that, I would withdraw homes from the watershed. Buy ‘em [and] tear ‘em down.”

Wells believes that protecting our drinking water is important enough to warrant such an approach, even though she is a resident in the watershed.

“If Lake Whatcom is genuinely the sub-regional water supply for the discernible future,” Wells says, “then we should treat it like one. We need to treat public health and safety like it´s something to take seriously instead of treating it like (local officials) are now, which is that we are all just a bunch of guinea pigs for God-knows-what being dumped in our water.”

A watershed action plan materialized in October and involves all concerned parties around the lake. If some resolution can be found through this plan, compromises between city, county, environmentalists and property owners may be possible.

Whatcom Watch Online
NorthWest Citizen