Bellingham council seeks comment on watershed fee hike

Bellingham residents are invited to comment on a proposed increase in watershed fees designed to provide additional funding for Lake Whatcom protection efforts.

The Bellingham City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal during its Jan. 23 meeting, at 7 p.m. in Bellingham City Council Chambers.

The fee increase is a recommendation of the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board, a citizen advisory committee that advises City officials about the watershed land acquisition program and other lake protection efforts.

Under the board’s proposal, the current $5 per month watershed charge would increase to $12 per month for all flat-rate customers, with a comparable increase for metered customers, the city said in a news release this week. The proposal also includes expanding possible uses of the fund, designating approximately 30 percent of the total revenue for capital projects.

The current $5 per month surcharge has been in place since 2001, when the City began collecting the fee and using it to purchase available land in the Lake Whatcom Watershed. To date, the city has purchased approximately 1,390 acres at a cost of $23.1 million, the city said.

Watershed Advisory Board members proposed increasing the fee as a means for purchasing and protecting further land from development and funding new lake protection initiatives, such as capital projects to address storm water runoff from existing streets and residential areas.

City staff have recommended postponing action on this proposal until a comprehensive water rate study is completed later this spring, so that all rate proposals can be considered together, in the context of the water system’s complete financial picture.

Public Works Director Ted Carlson said the rate study will propose strategies to meet the water system’s full financial obligations, today and in the future, including protecting Lake Whatcom as well as infrastructure needs. For example, he said, about 25 percent of the city’s 400 miles of water main are more than 50 years old. Current funding levels are inadequate to replace this aging water infrastructure, he said.

Other identified lake protection strategies require funding in addition to land acquisition efforts, he said, and the recent discovery of invasive clams in the lake also is a challenge that may require additional resources.

The results of the rate study will help the council and the public understand all the factors involved with financing our drinking water system, he said, and make sure that any increases are carefully planned.

“Property acquisition is a core strategy in the city’s long-term efforts to protect and restore Lake Whatcom and provide clean, safe drinking water to our community,” Carlson said. “Any increase in the land acquisition surcharge should be considered in coordination with the rate study.”

A draft of the rate study should be available for Council and public review in May.

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