Department of Ecology News Release - February 25, 2013

13-053

Lower levels of pollutants required to protect Lake Whatcom drinking water; State releases water cleanup plan for public review

BELLINGHAM – To protect Lake Whatcom and the drinking water for 100,000 people, the amount of pollutants entering the lake has to be substantially reduced according to recommendations from the Washington Department of Ecology in a new water cleanup plan.

Ecology worked with the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County officials to update a 2008 report to include guidance and strategy to limit pollutants entering the lake. The plan is tied to existing municipal stormwater permits currently in place for the city and county. The permits are updated every five years and will be key tools in helping clean up the lake.

The state is seeking public review and comments on the plan for the next 90 days before submitting it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work by a lot people from the state, county and city,” said Steve Hood, an Ecology engineer. “Together we’ve laid out specific targets that need to be met to protect drinking water. This plan should get us moving in the right direction.”

Lake Whatcom, the main source of drinking water for the city of Bellingham and other communities around the lake, is suffering from low levels of oxygen. The root cause of the problem: increased levels of phosphorous and fecal bacteria entering the lake.

Stormwater runoff from developed areas increases the amount of phosphorus entering the lake beyond natural, healthy levels. The excess phosphorus adds to the lake’s algae bloom problems, requiring more treatment to make the water safe for drinking. It also decreases the lake’s overall health.

Ecology sampling found high levels of fecal bacteria from human and animal waste entering the lake from 11 tributaries. The bacteria create a health risk for people who work, use or play in and around the water.

According to the report, two things need to happen for the lake to meet water quality standards: approximately 87 percent of the current development around the lake needs to be able to store and filter stormwater like a forest; and bacteria levels in the most contaminated streams need to be reduced up to 96 percent.

It will be the city’s and county’s ongoing responsibility to achieve these goals.

“This doesn’t mean all the developed areas need to be converted back to a forest,” said Hood. “But we do need to take care of the runoff so that it enters the lake in the same condition as if it were coming from the forest.” 

Developed areas can function like a forest or native vegetation if there is sufficient storage to retain water during storms. Retaining the stormwater allows it to soak in during and after the storm just like it would in a forest. 

The lake would have healthy levels of algae and oxygen if 87 percent of the developed area around the lake stored water during rainstorms, filtered water through the soil, and evaporated water as if it was covered by forest.

The plan is available for public review, and Ecology is accepting comments through May 28. Submit comments to Steve Hood at steve.hood@ecy.wa.gov or Department of Ecology, 1440 10th St., Suite 102, Bellingham, WA 98225.

Review the report at the following locations:

“The report sets the targets that the city and county need to aim for,” said Hood. “The challenge is going to be hitting those targets. It won’t be easy; it’s going to take tough decisions and teamwork to make it happen.”

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Media Contacts:

Steve Hood, Ecology water quality engineer, 360-715-5211 or steve.hood@ecy.wa.gov

Dustin Terpening, Ecology media relations, 360-715-5205 or dustin.terpening@ecy.wa.gov

For more information:

Water cleanup plan (https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/summarypages/1310012.html)

Lake Whatcom website (www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/tmdl/LkWhatcom/LkWhatcomTMDL.html)

Ecology's social media (www.ecy.wa.gov/about/newmedia.html)