Bellingham asks state to ban new wells in Lake Whatcom watershed

The Bellingham Business Journal

The city of Bellingham asked state officials to prohibit new wells in the Lake Whatcom Reservoir watershed in order to limit further development, protect water quality and preserve the city’s rights to its drinking water source.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike said the city formally petitioned the state Department of Ecology on Jan. 10, asking the state agency to take immediate action and close the Lake Whatcom Reservoir watershed to new groundwater withdrawals.

Pike has worked for more than two years pursuing this action, with the support of Bellingham City Council members and in consultation with Department of Ecology officials.

“We are under orders from Ecology to improve water quality and prevent further degradation,” Pike said in a press release. “The state has the tools to help us, and we’d like to use those tools.”

Department of Ecology officials estimated that approximately 500 lots on 5,000 acres would be affected if new wells in the watershed are prohibited, Pike said. Many of the lots could be subdivided under existing zoning laws.

The city has comprehensive regulations in place to protect the lake from inappropriate development, but only 3 percent of the watershed is within Bellingham city limits, leaving the majority of the watershed less protected, Pike said. Prohibiting new wells in the watershed would significantly limit new development, because proof of water supply is required before any building permits can be issued.

According to the city’s petition, when new wells are approved for the watershed, development is enabled and additional water quality degradation occurs ― that degradation impairs the city’s water rights and its ability to provide drinking water to its customers.

For example, in summer 2009, excessive algae blooms slowed operations at the city’s water treatment plant, clogging water filters and requiring the city to impose mandatory restrictions on customer water use and use millions of gallons of treated water to flush filters. Algae blooms are fed by phosphorus delivered to the lake in runoff from cleared and developed land. When algae die and decay, the process uses up oxygen.

Lake Whatcom is on the state’s list of impaired water bodies for low dissolved oxygen and must be restored to meet state and federal water quality standards, according to a Jan. 10 Department of Ecology press release.

The department has 60 days to approve or deny the petition, but city officials are pressing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office to direct the Department of Ecology to take immediate emergency action on the petition.

The Department of Ecology is reviewing the petition and considering its response options, according to its press release.

“We are considering the city’s request and will work with the city and Whatcom County to develop a strategy to address Lake Whatcom’s serious water quality problems and protect the city’s water right on the lake,” the press release said.

In the meantime, the city has asked the department to order a temporary closure of the watershed to new wells while requiring Whatcom County government to put in place meaningful regulations to protect the lake.

Pike said emergency action should have little immediate effect on the building industry, since annual wet season construction restrictions are in place throughout the watershed through the end of May.


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