For those new to the area and for others who have forgotten the history of
the Sudden Valley sewer line overflows, this is an abbreviated synopsis of
the unfortunate events leading up to December 14th's (and possibly tomorrow's?)
sewer line infiltration and inflow problems.
History of Sudden Valley Sewer Line Overflows Repeating Itself
by Sally Hewitt
(Reprinted with permission, from The Whatcom Watch, month, year)
Sewer Overflows a Severe Health Hazard
On February 21, 1992, the State of Washington Department of Health ("Health")
declared that the contamination of the ground resulting from the "ongoing and
periodic discharge of untreated sewage from Water District 10's sewer system
manholes" created a severe public health hazard. Health's declaration was in
response to a request from the Whatcom County Health Officer. The declaration
cited the fact that major overflows, lasting from hours to weeks had occurred
four to five times each year, for the past twenty years.
Three months later, on May 8, 1992, Whatcom County Hearing Examiner Ed Good
denied the application to build a second sewer line saying Water District #10
needed to reduce stormwater entering the existing system before building a
second line. This decision was to become the bastion and bulwark of clean
In 1993, a Water District #10 memo was sent to the district's mailing list.
The memo was entitled "Frequently asked questions regarding Sewer Capacity
Limitations." The memo included a clearer look at the direction of Water
District #10 and the second sewer line (interceptor):
-- Q: Will the rehabilitation of the Sudden Valley sanitary sewer system
create additional capacity for new hookups?
WD10 A: No. The district's engineers determined that the theoretical capacity
under maximum flow demands has been reached without taking into consideration
the excessive infiltration and inflow (from stormwater) that exists in the
-- Q: Will construction of a new interceptor relieve the infiltration and
WD10 A: No. The interceptor is required to transport sewage flows resulting
from future service connections to be made to the sanitary sewer collection
system within the Geneva and Sudden Valley service areas of the district's
-- Q: What negotiations have taken place with the City of Bellingham for
increasing the 3200 gpm limitation contained in the sewage treatment
WD10 A: In 1990, the district requested the city to increase the capacity for
sewage treatment to 4,334 gpm under the January 1, 1974 contract. This
request was denied.
The same memo reprints part of a letter from then Bellingham City Council
President, Don Gischer. The city formalized their position about the WD 10
request for additional sewage capacity by stating: "The Council as well as
the community at large is very concerned about the effects of continual
growth in the Lake Whatcom Watershed. Additional growth, beyond the
substantial amount already provided for in the existing contract, would have
adverse impacts on water quality, traffic congestion, and other quality of
life issues. While we recognize that future difficulties may arise in the
development of land and the provision on utility service, we are not willing
to go beyond our existing contract obligations."
Interestingly, the 1993 WD10 memo then states: "The district will make
requests to the city for reconsideration of this position at appropriate
times and when new Council members take office."
Sewer Line Permit Issued
In the new political climate on September 15, 1994, Whatcom County Superior
Court Judge David Nichols overturned the 1992 Hearing Examiner decision and
issued a permit for a second Sudden Valley sewer line.
Persistent and not easily defeated, the same dedicated group of concerned
citizens who were the intervenor-respondents in the Shoreline Hearings Board
case--Jay Taber, the Whatcom Falls Neighborhood Association, and Sherilyn
Wells--appealed the 1994 hearing examiner decision to the Washington State
Court of Appeals in 1995. The Court of Appeals overturned Judge Nichols'
decision on January 4, 1996.
In the meantime, it appeared that the 1990-1991 and 1991-1993 Water District
#10 contracts to survey and repair 1,100 manholes covers, 23 did not work, as
two sewer spills of approximately a quarter million gallons each took place
on November 30th and December 27, 1994. A 1996 Water District #10 draft
environmental impact statement, edited by Robert (Sandy) Petersen, the
district general manager, stated that "sewage overflows usually occur at pump
stations, although small overflows may occur from manhole covers. Pump
station overflows can also occur during power outages or debris blockage of
outgoing pipes of force mains."
Repeated Sewage Overflows
Petersen continues in the 1996 DEIS: "In November 1995 a large storm event
resulted in an overflow at the Sudden Valley sewage lift station (near Austin
Creek). During this event, sewage overflowed from the pump station wetwell,
eventually flowing into Austin Creek. During a later storm in November 1995
sewage overflows occurred at the Sudden Valley lift station, airport lift
station, and a manhole along Lake Whatcom Boulevard near Strawberry Point."
DEIS: "Overflows again flowed into Austin Creek. A total of about 741,000
gallons overflowed over two days during this storm event. A manhole in Lake
Whatcom Boulevard near Strawberry Point overflowed into a ditch and then into
Lake Whatcom. The district's sewer system is typical of many systems in that
infiltration and inflow can occur to such a degree as to produce overflows.
What is distinct about the district's system is that these overflows occur in
the watershed of a drinking water source."
Sewage Detention Tank Proposed
Water District #10 appealed the January 4, 1996 Washington State Court of
Appeals decision to the Washington State Supreme Court. On June 8, 1996--the
Supreme Court refused to hear the matter and the 1992 Whatcom County Hearing
Examiner decision disallowing the construction of the second sewer line was
Their final appeal rejected, Water District #10 found another path through
the maze and pursued a plan to build a 700,000-gallon sewage detention tank.
In May of 1998, Whatcom County Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink issued a
conditional-use permit to the district for the 700,000-gallon tank. The
purpose of the tank was to eliminate raw sewage overflow into Lake Whatcom
and allow 600 new sewer hookups at a rate of 150 per year over a four year
A December 10, 1998 Bellingham Herald editorial opinion called the detention
tank "a double-edged sword in the fight to protect the lake from mounting
pollution. On the one hand, it largely resolves the disgusting, embarrassing,
and unhealthy problem of sewage overflows into Lake Whatcom...The tank has
the capacity to hold the excess (storm) water and sewage until it can be
released back into the sewer system at off-peak hours."
The editorial continued by stating that "the environmental downside, however,
is that the tank will permit construction of 600 new homes over the next four
years if ongoing legal challenges filed by local environmental activists
ultimately fail...As we've said before, the County Council should place a
moratorium on new subdivisions in the watershed and commission a definitive
study of the cumulative, long-term impacts of new housing on water
Defense Fund Files Lawsuit
In March of 1998, the Watershed Defense Fund et al filed suit in U.S.
District Court in Seattle alleging that sewage overflow into Lake Whatcom was
a violation of the Clean Water Act. The plaintiffs in the case were Bill and
Rose Black, Susan and John Kane-Ronning, Sherilyn Wells, and the Watershed
Defense Fund of Bellingham. They cited numerous incidents of raw sewage
spilling into Lake Whatcom, often through manhole covers.
In response to the suit, Water District #10 said that it was taking steps to
improve its sewer system. The improvements would enable it to prevent
overflows and lift the five-year moratorium on sewer hookups in Sudden Valley
and part of Geneva. The district said it was retrofitting manholes and
replacing and repairing problem lines where possible. It also proposed
improving a sewage pump station at Euclid Street.
According to Water District #10, building the detention basin in Sudden
Valley and a sewage transmission line from Sudden Valley to Bellingham would
serve dual purposes: containment of sewage overflows and allowing additional
homes to connect to the system.
The plaintiffs opposed more connections to the district's system. It was
their opinion that by lifting the moratorium on hookups, Water District #10
would allow for more development on a sewage system that was already
ineffective and inadequate.
On November 23, 1999, Water District #10 and the Watershed Defense Fund et
al. Reached a settlement in the Clean Water Act federal lawsuit filed in
March of 1998. The settlement called for Water District #10 to give $220,000
to Whatcom Land Trust for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands
around the lake, reduce the number of new hookups allowed for the Sudden
Valley Sewage Detention Basin from 600 to 310, and to pay penalties to the
land trust whenever sewage spills from district facilities into the lake. In
just four years, the penalties for overflows will terminate. (Note: four
years means November 2003.)
Water District #10 has begun to use a trucking system to transport sewage
when the stormwater inundates the sewer system. There were four to five sewer
spills per year from 1975 to 1992--since 1992, there have been two to three
reported spills per year. Is it time for another lawsuit on behalf of all
citizens who drink water from Lake Whatcom to ensure there are zero sewer
overflows? If the second sewer line is constructed, it will not solve the
infiltration and inflow problem in the detention tank nor the existing sewer
line along Lake Whatcom Boulevard. It will allow for the full build-out of
Sudden Valley and Geneva.
Here is the approximate route of the new sewer line - flow from right to left (SV to B'ham):
For a thorough history of the Sudden Valley sewer line and overflows, visit
www.WhatcomWatch.org and go to February and March 2000.
Click on "A Roller Coaster Ride: The Proposed Second Sudden Valley Sewer Line."
A list of references is provided. Many of the documents can be found in the
Bellingham Public Library.
The Initiative Group
Our bottom-line principles are:
Protect the water supply in perpetuity -- maintain ecological viability of the lake for natural species -- distribute the financial burden fairly among those benefitting -- take immediate action if prudent -- take definitive action -- avoid actions which cut off future options.
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