Frequently Asked Questions:
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Land Use/Ownership
Water - Quantity, Quality and Ecology
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Drinking Water Initiative
Lake Whatcom
Forested Watershed Protection Program

The Initiative Group
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What does this Plan actually do? Lets the City of Bellingham become a willing buyer of land in the Watershed, with money in a fund to actually buy enough land quickly enough to make a difference in drinking-water safety. It sets an additional user-fee for all who use that water, if supplied by the City through its piping system. Then the plan says the land that gets bought will be ecologically-managed in carefully-done forestry, which both protects the eco-system and brings income to the City.

Is there any precedent for this, or did you just dream up this "buy-up" plan? Many cities have already done this. Bellingham is actually out-of-step, and very late! Seattle just finished a hundred-year program. Los Angeles, Arcata, and Laguna Beach, California all have purchased their water supply basins. Redmond, WA did it from 1926 to 1944. Others we have found incomplete references to in a brief internet search are New York City, places in NJ, RI, VA and CO. New Bellingham residents say they are "appalled" to discover that the water-tank they drink from is "trashed" and nobody seems to care! Well, we care, and that's why we're doing this.

Can the City actually own land in the County? Yes, the City already DOES own land at the south end of the lake, exactly for these purposes.

Why should the City do this and not the County? The City has the water rights and delivers the water, not the County, so it has the most direct responsibility. That obligation for the public health cannot be done well while the City is not able to keep foreign materials out of the reservoir.

Why not simply use Land Condemnation? We still have time and opportunity to use a voluntary method of land acquisition, and condemnation is a big hammer. We're betting that it's not needed; that many landowners are willing sellers -- this plan sets up a way to have a willing buyer who can and will responsibly manage the land for ecological value.

Why can't land simply be zoned against building? (moratorium) Why not just use laws to stop building in watershed? A moratorium is too much like taking away much of the economic value of the land from the owner. Most of the watershed land is in the County, so the County would be the jurisdiction that had to apply the moratorium, and would surely be required to compensate the owners, yet the County still would not own or control the land.

Why not a temporary moratorium against building or subdividing? A temporary moratorium has value, if used just to suspend damaging and irreversible actions while letting an overall plan be made and agreed to. Since most of the land is in the County, the County would have to apply the moratorium but they have almost nothing to gain; very little to do with the City's drinking-water safety as it relates to land - only health inspections of the treatment plant.

How big is the watershed? Actually there are two: the natural watershed and a part of the watershed of the upper Middle Fork branch of the Nooksack River. The natural watershed is 37,000 acres. The upper Middle Fork watershed, by coincidence, is also close to the same number of acres.

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What IS a "watershed"? A Watershed is essentially a bowl, or basin; Watershed is a topographic and hydrologic term; it is a region of land that collects rainwater as it runs off its hillsides: (literally: the hillsides "shed" the water - the "runoff"). You start figuring any watershed basin at a low-point, where the stream flows out; then find all the land up the slopes which drain "in" to that point. (Pass over the ridge-line divide, and you're in the next-door watershed). The starting point can be anywhere from a river mouth, to any middle-point, to any stream or even a "dry" gulch or gully that flows just while its raining or snow is melting.

Where does the Lake water come from? Lake Whatcom gets water only from rainfall and snow ("precipitation"); -- it comes from three main sources: the streams which naturally flow into it, a bit of direct precipitation into the lake itself, and diverted water from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River. There are three or four main natural streams that flow all year: -- Austin, Silver Beach, Olsen, and Smith Creeks. The Middle Fork diversion was finished in 1962; water (when the City turns it on) goes through a tunnel and pipeline into Mirror Lake and Anderson Creek, at the far east end of the natural watershed (near Highway 9). It is shut during dry periods, and the Lake level goes down. In 1999, the EPA listing of salmon (as a threatened species) brings new considerations for habitat protection -- which make it clear that in the dry-season, a maximum of water should stay in the Nooksack River, so is not available to add to the Reservoir. Map number 1 shows the diversion.

How much water does the City use? On average the City's potable (drinking-water) consumption in 1998 was 11 million gallons per day (MGD). This is what runs through the water treatment plant. Also, three times that amount (33 MGD) runs untreated through another pipe to the GP plant on the bayfront. The total flow through the lake is the sum of those and the Whatcom Creek natural flow, or about 45-50 MGD -- but it varies quite a bit with the weather each year. If the Nooksack diversion is reduced (see previous question) that 45-50 MGD total will be much less! Then, who cuts back? Residents or GP?

How much water does the Lake get from each source in a year? On average for the last 30 years, the MiddleFork diversion just about doubled the water which goes into the lake. The natural streams have put about half the total amount of water into the lake since the diversion started operating. Direct precipitation on the lake surface is a small part. Depending on rainfall and land use, the natural streams' total annual flow averages about 25 million gallons per day. This is about: 25 x 365 days = 9,000 million gallons per year (9 billion). Hard to picture! Try to imagine a water-tank the size of a football field, standing 4,000 yards tall (40 football-field lengths). Or a ten-acre city-block, standing "only" two city-blocks tall (660*660*1,200 feet). Lotta' water -- yet maybe not enough. The city uses 11-plus; GP has been using 35 MGD.

What is Basin 1? Lake Whatcom has three distinct sections made by two underwater ridges which cross the lake and divide it. Nearer the city is Basin #1, which starts at Bloedel-Donovan Park and ends at Fairview St. in Geneva and Eagle Ridge Subdivision on the north-shore. Basin #2 is from there to Strawberry Point peninsula on the south-west shore and Dellesta Park Drive on the north-shore. The rest is Basin #3, passing Agate Bay and Sudden Valley to the south bay area. See the maps.

How many households can the lake watershed support? We can't tell for sure until it's far too late -- and then there'll be no way to fix it! The way other major cities treat their watersheds is to exclude all activities except careful, responsible logging.

What will happen since salmon are listed as an endangered species by the Federal ESA? Will the ESA listing affect the Middle Fork diversion? The listing happened in March, 1999. One major thing will change; it will be almost impossible to get approval for any construction that can/might damage salmon habitat around the Lake, the Nooksack River and many other streams. The amount of water diverted from the River to the Reservoir is sure to be curtailed, although no order has yet been given. The City of Bellingham, which controls the gates, has been voluntarily reducing the take in recent years. If the diversion dam on the upper Middle Fork of the Nooksack River (the "capture" point) is shut off, then the ONLY source of Bellingham's drinking-water will be that water which runs off the lands around the lake. Frightening!

Is concern over shutting the diversion a question of volume or quality? Both. The natural inflow volume can be calculated directly with pretty good confidence, and it will meet the City's consumption but only a part of what GP uses. When the flushing action of that diverted water is reduced or quits, it is not easy to say how bad the lake water quality will go sour, but it can only get worse. Our TIG proposal directly addresses water quality: keeping a supply of safe and suitable water for people and for fish and critters for the next century. The amount of total flow through the lake does come into play: less flow-through lowers the water quality because there would be less dilution (pollutants stay more concentrated) and less flushing-out (pollutants are not send "away" down the creek). The less the industrial flow which goes to GP, the worse the lake would get.

Why not just move the intake to Basin #3? Or why not build a pipe all the way to the Middle Fork? Several reasons: a pipe like that is a fragile, weak link in the system which could be destroyed by an earthquake or other disaster, either choice would make that danger both more likely and harder to fix; the direct harm to habitat during construction would be so serious that permits (the ESA listing has happened) likely could not be gotten; it does NOT do anything beneficial for wildlife habitat, especially in Whatcom Creek; and the construction cost is high with so very little benefit. The possibility (probability?) of losing rights to much of the Nooksack River diversion water makes any direct-pipe a no-win deal.

How come Bellingham has only one treatment plant? What about an earthquake? Good question - no answer for why just one, although costs of duplication are surely a factor. We are at earthquake risk, but the needed patchups if that happens can be done, since it's in the city and readily accessible to work, and there are options to bypass and do other temporary repairs. The June 10th Olympic pipeline explosion emphasized the delicate place we're in with one source pipe and one plant -- just the fact that the pipe was far enough from the treatment plant kept our water flowing.

I've heard that the County has a Lake Whatcom stormwater plan, doesn't that fix everything wrong with the lake? No. In fact, as of mid-August (1999) there is still really no plan. The joint jurisdictions ("CC10" - City, County and WD#10) are working on how to make one. Even if an excellent stormwater control/treatment plan was made, it will be costly and unsure -- a band-aid -- and leaves many places where failures will leave no protection. How much will we have to pay, and keep on paying forever, for engineering, planning, construction, inspection, enforcement, and maintenance?

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How much money does the TIG program ask for? The TIG plan sets a goal of income to be raised from additional levies on residential, industrial and commercial users (with a few exceptions like low-income households). We revised the rate rules in our last version of the proposal: it now sets a total goal for the entire program: $4-million per year. The City then figures how to get this by splitting the total between the various classes of users. The money may be called a levy, fee or surcharge.

Does your program ask for money from households? Yes. The TIG plan include an additional fee on each residential user. It will be set to be something between zero and $12.00 per month, for unmetered households. It's a flat-rate per billing-period since there are no meters on single-family homes in Bellingham. For example, if it gets set at the $6 rate, you'd see $12 on each water-bill every two months -- $72 per year per household.

Does your program ask for money from industry? Yes. The TIG plan DOES include additional fees to all industrial and commercial users. Every business would pay at least the same as a household, and pay more as they use more water. GP has had a special contract with the City which is now expiring; it's probable (but not yet said) that they will become a metered industrial user in FY 1999-2000. Nobody has heard what their rate might be; our program would simply have the city put some suitable surcharge on their base water-bill, just like other industrial users.

Will your program buy all the land in the whole watershed? "Yes", sort-of. The TIG plan DOES include the ability to buy any land in the two watersheds in its formal language. It's not very likely that will happen, of course. The targeted land total in the natural watershed of the Lake is roughly about 10,000 acres; in the upper Middle Fork watershed perhaps 2,000 acres or less. Land parcels which are very unlikely to be bought are current homes and businesses (expensive for the benefit gained) and land zoned Commercial Forestry, most of which belongs to the governments or major industrial corporations. Some of those businesses, however, own property zoned for development, and those would be suitable for purchase.

What is the average price per acre? ...per lot? We used some average and probable numbers to see if a buy-up program could even be done. They are so speculative that there is not much meaning to put a large effort into trying to estimate land prices. The Program simply collects an amount, then buys as much land as it can, at the cheapest price it can get. Get our calculation program (a spreadsheet) from this website and put in your own numbers. But having set that caution; if there's 12,000 acres, all rural land at $10,000/acre, we'd need $120 million and (120/4-per-year=) 30 years to do the whole job. Achievable. (The City of Bellingham's 1999 annual budget is $122,352,000). At $20,000/acre, it takes 60 years. Seattle took 100 years. You-the-voters will decide.

What is the cost of treatment versus buying up so many millions in land in the watershed? Two things wrong about that question: 1) Drinking-water treatment for the city as the solution, whatever the cost, leaves the lake polluted, does not care for the ecosystem, and forces individual users who take water directly from the lake to pay more for their own increased private treatment; and 2) we estimate that what a doubled treatment plant might cost is actually far more than the buy-out cost under our program, especially considering that not all the targeted land will be actually bought. Holding land in forestry is better economics than build-pollute-and-try-to-fix.

Why do land speculators get big bucks? Some do, some don't. Speculators take risks. How's the stock market lately? Speculation on land is no different from speculation on any commodity, and some deals end up a loss, or more often less profitable than expected.

Won't the County, City and Port of Bellingham lose property from its tax rolls? That's only half of the real question: Yes, those taxes might not get paid (so County INCOME is less), but the infrastructure cost for satellite properties is far higher than the tax revenue from that land. A land block, with buildings and people needing piped-water, sewer and roads construction costs and maintenance costs, police and fire expenses, put up away from the high-density city is a bad-deal, money-wise, for the county and its taxpayers. Ask Public Works finance people for the numbers yourself, and look at the math!

Have you considered "impact fees" for watershed residents? Yes. It seems fair to have those who still live within the reservoir watershed and so directly pollute there themselves, contribute to the care of the pollution.
Help us and the City and County figure a reasonable way to calculate such a charge -- rewarding properties who take good care with lower charges, while charging more of those who do pollute or might pollute. There is serious discussion of a special Reservoir Watershed District, similar to the flood and diking districts along the Nooksack River. It fits under current law. It increases the fairness. It does not conflict with our Initiative - in fact the resources of this Initiative can be the funding source for the beginnings of such a larger program. Vote YES in November.

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Is the lake quality harmful now? Yes. Cryptosporidium and giardia are constantly present. Low oxygen content harms many species - and might be the trigger for new Federal and State restrictions. Storms and sewerage line overflows regularly cause the health authorities to ban use of the untreated water and recreation. Fish-kills documented by the State (sudden deaths of lots of fish in a particular spot) have been linked to identified pollutants in runoff water. Studies paid for by the City show that such periodic events have caused failure of the lake water to meet health standards. We know that the State DoE (Ecology) has been preparing a county-wide water quality status report (not yet published in July '99), which we strongly suspect will document even greater deterioration of the Lake water quality. Bad news for health. Good support for our program and others with similar goals.

Why are Ozonization, Activated Charcoal and Reverse Osmosis needed? Cryptosporidium and giardia are a health hazard for infants, seniors, and immune-system-impaired individuals, and pass through the treatment plant. To protect the community, extra processes are needed to remove those hazards.

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Will all recreational use of the Lake be stopped? Boats? Jet-skis? Nothing will be changed by the TIG plan. Our plan addresses only ownership and use of public land around the watershed. Other agencies have the responsibility for boating rules and regulations. Our program does nothing about private land, except offer to buy it!

What other alternatives have you looked at? Water from other sources -- Ross Lake and Canada. Other places in Whatcom to store water (from winter to summer, basically). Ways to connect the Middle-Fork source directly to the treatment plant. Any suitable alternative must also protect the eco-system of the Lake and Whatcom Creek -- and none of those options do the protection. The ESA listing of salmon make any such major interbasin transfer almost laughable - both from water rights transfer questions and construction permits near-impossibility.

Will your group still consider other alternatives? YES! Absolutely. We will look at anything from anybody which does all these things:
  1. protects the drinking-water,
  2. protects the eco-system of the Lake and Whatcom Creek,
  3. shares financial burdens fairly,
  4. minimizes risk and costs of natural disaster recovery,
  5. takes immediate action if prudent,
  6. takes definitive action, and
  7. avoids actions which significantly cut off future options.

Doesn't the County already require adequate bonding of builders and developers? Not for drinking-water quality at the source. Just for construction errors, and for water and sanitary sewer piping standards inside buildings and to street connections.

Won't the Interlocal Agreement do the job if we just let those three governments make up the plan? No. It's great but not enough; the three-way "CC10" Interlocal Agreement (IA) was definitely needed, we concur! But look at the record: 20-plus years of planning for the watershed has produced very few changes, and hundreds of new homes have been built while City and County discuss the Lake and watershed. The "IA" says that the City, County and WD10 agree to work together formally and to put money into planning what to do about the Lake Whatcom Watershed. Complete solutions cannot be achieved without it! We applaud the three governments for doing it -- finally. But they have focussed on one short-term goal, putting band-aids on old storm-water runoff problems.

What's this TDR thing? Won't the TDR stop development around the lake? No. It's effect will be far too small. Also, it will be hard to implement and manage. It sets a way to swap "development density" (the Transfer of Rights to Develop at specified densities -- TDR's), into other places in the city and County.

How does this work with other activities in the watershed? The TIG buy-up plan works in perfect harmony with the other planned actions -- it IS exactly the implementation of Goal #2 of the watershed programs of 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. Existing storm-water runoff problems must be cleaned up, whoever the owner is or was. The amount of building within the reservoir watershed must be reduced; some may be by swapping density (TDR's); better yet is no new building under our FWP Program. New rules must be set for future building so as to not repeat those problems and harm Lake water quality. All these actions can be done and should proceed - but they are all playing catch-up, and increase the costs and the risk of severe pollution. Isn't it time to do it right?

Why should we hurry to do this now? Shouldn't we wait until a whole-watershed plan is completed? The actions by the CC10 Interlocal Agreement are not enough, and will permit the problem to constantly get worse. What's needed is a solution -- one that will last for a hundred years or more.
definitively ... permanently ... fairly ... most economically.
The TIG buy-out program will avoid making more watershed quality problems, and it is the right thing to do.

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The Initiative Group -- Whatcom
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edited November 3rd , 1999 -- mgb
Bellingham, Washington 98226 --- The Fourth Corner of the USA
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