Water Quality Improvement Project
The comment period has closed. There were 109 comments by 19 commenters. Ecology is reviewing the comments and developing a response to them.
February 2013 - Lake Whatcom water quality report out for public review
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 Lake Whatcom.
The report recommends that in order to protect Lake Whatcom and the drinking
water for 100,000 people the amount of pollutants entering the lake has to be
Ecology is seeking public review and comments on the report for the next 90
days before submitting it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The final report is available for public review, and Ecology accepted
comments through May 28, 2013. Comments were submitted to:
Bellingham Field Office
WA State Department of Ecology
1440 10th St., Suite 102
Bellingham, WA 98225
Review the report at the following locations:
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.
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
It will be the city’s and county’s ongoing responsibility to achieve these
Lake Whatcom is a large natural lake in Whatcom County. The northwest end of
the lake lies within the city of Bellingham, and 22 small watersheds drain into
the lake. Lake Whatcom serves as the drinking water source for about 96,000
people in the Bellingham area. The lake is popular for recreation, and the area
around it has become a popular place to live.
Water quality problems in Lake Whatcom have triggered a water quality
improvement project by Ecology. These projects begin with a study of pollutants.
For Lake Whatcom, Ecology is working to determine the allowable limits of
phosphorus in the lake and fecal coliform bacteria in the tributaries, to meet
water quality standards. Ecology will work with local governments to determine
how to achieve those limits. (See
Water quality issues
Based on historic data, Ecology officially recognized in 1998 that Lake
Whatcom fails to meet state standards for dissolved oxygen. This put Lake
Whatcom on the state’s 303(d) list of impaired water bodies.
Also, 11 tributaries flowing into the lake have fecal coliform levels
that are too high.
On January 10, 2011 the city of Bellingham filed a petition to have the Lake
Whatcom Watershed closed to additional groundwater withdrawals. The city’s
petition argues that phosphorus-laden runoff from cleared and developed land is
impairing the city’s ability to exercise its municipal water right from Lake
Whatcom and supply water to nearly 100,000 people. Elevated levels of phosphorus
have resulted in low dissolved oxygen levels and excessive growth of algae
blooms in the lake that has slowed operations at the city’s water treatment
plant. The algae blooms clog water filters and require the city to use millions
of gallons of treated water to flush the filters.
Since 1990, the city and county have worked to develop a strategy to improve
water quality in Lake Whatcom to meet state and federal standards for dissolved
oxygen. The lake is on the state’s 303(d) list of impaired water bodies, and
local governments must meet the pollution limits identified through the state
water quality improvement process (called a TMDL). But that process is not
intended to address these immediate concerns about the city’s compromised water
rights, and immediate concerns about the continuing degradation of the
environment in the watershed.
Under the Administrative Procedures Act, Ecology can:
- Grant Bellingham’s petition.
- Deny the petition with an explanation.
- Deny the petition but provide an alternative means to address the
concerns of the petition.
Ecology chose the third option and accepted Whatcom County’s proposal to
amend its development regulations in the Lake Whatcom watershed in the next
several months to ensure no additional phosphorus contamination of the lake. A
letter from the county executive to Ecology states the county’s goals of
amending the regulations to:
- Prevent additions of phosphorus to Lake Whatcom from new development
- Achieve a consistent and predictable set of development regulations.
Ecology believes if the amended regulations are adopted and effectively
implemented, the goals of the city’s petition will be achieved. If the
amendments are not adopted or properly implemented, Ecology reserves the right
to take additional regulatory action to ensure that our water quality goals for
the lake are achieved.
Lake Whatcom's use for drinking water and its high potential to be degraded
further have made it a priority for a state water quality improvement project,
also known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study.
Monitoring surveys were completed in 2002 and 2003, and Ecology completed
a draft water quality study to identify the limits for phosphorus, the root of
the dissolved oxygen issue.
The final TMDL study findings will be the basis for decisions local
governments make about the lake's future. The city of Bellingham and Whatcom
County will work with the state to develop a plan for meeting the limits
established in the study. The plan will then go to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency for review. If the EPA finds that the TMDL and the strategy to
meet its limits are sound, EPA will approve the TMDL for Lake Whatcom.
Ecology requested public comment on the Draft Lake Whatcom Watershed Total
Phosphorus and Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Loads — Water Quality Study
Findings. The public comment period ended on September 17, 2008.
Since 2009 Ecology has worked with the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County
to determine what tools they will use to implement the TMDL. We are trying to
best characterize current conditions. We plan to run models that estimate how
much pollution comes from the watershed and how the lake will respond.
The water cleanup plan will be based on how much pollution reduction is
necessary based on our new estimate of existing conditions, with no reserve for
Why this matters
Fecal coliform bacteria originate in human and animal waste. Runoff carries
the bacteria from the ground and from failing septic systems into the lake. Eleven
tributaries feeding Lake Whatcom fail to meet state standards for fecal coliform
bacteria. The bacteria create a health risk for people who work or play in and
around the water.
Phosphorus is the main cause of Lake Whatcom’s low-oxygen problem. Phosphorus
occurs naturally, but development increases phosphorus entering the lake in
stormwater. Computer predictions show the lake would meet state standards for
oxygen if there was 86 percent less development than existed in 2003. Since then, zoning laws have allowed more development in the watershed.
Sources: Runoff from bare soil and developed areas. Phosphorus occurs naturally in
soil and human and animal waste, and is added to some detergents.
Connection to algae and oxygen: Phosphorus feeds algae growth. Bacteria that
consume dying algae deplete the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to
survive. When oxygen levels are low, phosphorus is released from lake sediment
and re-enters the water, perpetuating the cycle. The dissolved oxygen levels in
Lake Whatcom fail to meet state water quality standards now, and they have the
potential to get much worse, making the problem much harder to fix.
Treatment of drinking water: Excess phosphorus creates larger algae blooms,
which require more treatment to make the water safe for drinking. That process
creates more trihalomethanes, a byproduct that some studies link to cancer.
Effect of development: Roofs, driveways and lawns interrupt the absorption
and filtration provided by forests and soils, instead sending phosphorus-laden
stormwater rushing to the lake. Communities must modify existing and future
development to create the same effect as removing development.
Unless otherwise specified, the following documents are Ecology publications:
Lake Whatcom Watershed Total Phosphorus and Bacteria Total Maximum Daily
Loads: Volume 2. Water Quality Improvement Report and Implementation Strategy
Lake Whatcom Watershed Total Phosphorus and Bacteria Total Maximum
Daily Loads: Volume 1. Water Quality Study Findings
Dissolved Oxygen in Lake Whatcom/Trend in the Depletion of Hypolimnetic
Oxygen in Basin I 83-97
Quality Assurance Project Plan: Lake Whatcom TMDL Study
Quality Assurance Project Plan: Characterization of Groundwater Discharge to
Lake Whatcom Total Maximum Daily Load Groundwater Study
Lake Whatcom water quality still slipping, data shows
(The Bellingham Herald
article, March 17, 2011)
Ecology accepts plan for better protection of water quality in Lake Whatcom
(Ecology news release - March 11, 2011)
State rejects well drilling ban, approves county plan for Lake Whatcom
safeguards (The Bellingham Herald
article, March 11, 2011)
Focus on Lake Whatcom TMDL: Draft study identifies limits for Lake Whatcom
phosphorus and bacteria
Reducing Phosphorus Pollution to Improve Water Quality (Water
Quality web site)
WRIA 1: Nooksack
Watershed Information (Environmental Assessment
Program web site)
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