Wally Wonders Why No editor, no publisher, you get what you get

February 22, 2010

What is Wrong with Lake Whatcom

Filed under: Feature,Featured,Local Issue — Tags: , , , — wally @ 6:29 am

Since moving to the area 9 years ago, I’ve gotten used to bickering, accusations, partisan slams, and science nitpicks, all surrounding the issue of Lake Whatcom water quality.  As someone who spent my first few college years studying chemistry with the intent of  spending my career life outdoors, I am somewhat familiar with the subject and so found it interesting.  The science is interesting, not the bickering and partisan stuff.

In my opinion it would be foolish to argue that the problems with Lake Whatcom are not due primarily to we people.  It seems intuitive that if man had never visited this lake, the water quality would generally be much better.  The area ecosystem would also be much more robust and able to handle periodic heavy rains, occasional dry spells, and a mud or land slide here and there.

Last time I checked there were people living around the lake and it didn’t look like they were packing to leave.  So the problem we have is the problem we have.   There are too many nutrients and too little oxygen.  Too much phosphorus in various forms.  Too much fecal coli form.  Too many algae blooms and too many dead fish.  And the list could go on.   I read various shades of partisanship when experts and officials study pollution sources, but whether it’s bird poop or human poop, it’s still too much poop.  And whether soils entering the lake come from natural slides or excavators getting stuck, it’s still soil that wasn’t in the lake before.

We should encourage responsible use around Lake Whatcom as well as every other piece of land or water in the county, but encouragement alone won’t solve the problem and neither will draconian measures regarding sewage treatment, storm water, open soil, dishwasher soaps, etc.   And finger pointing is pretty counter productive unless everyone redirects their finger away from each other and towards the problem that we have created.

The real problem is that the natural state of the lake, which took thousands of years to develop, was forever altered about 70 years ago when we installed an intake pipe and a dam.  These two measures were taken to provide a consistent water supply both for drinking and industry.

1937, Control Dam installed on upper Whatcom creek to regulate level of lake

1939, new 7460 foot cement-lined 6.5 foot-diameter tunnel dug between treatment plant and lake. By early 40’s, joined to 1260-foot wooden intake pipe extending into basin 2

lake whatcom normal flowThis solution to their water supply issue at the time, created a 2-fold interrelated problem that we are still suffering from today.  The natural flow of the lake and the natural level of the lake were significantly altered.

Prior to these events all water coming into the lake went out over Whatcom Falls alone, creating a natural South to North flow and consistent mixing throughout the whole body of water.  The lake level was also regulated by the shelf at the falls which is at about 308 ft. above sea level.

The legal maximum lake level was established at 314.94 feet by Whatcom County Superior Court in 1953.  The City of Bellingham controls lake level by a control dam at the head of Whatcom Creek

Considering that Lake Whatcom has about 30 miles of shoreline, how much new soil was introduced into the lake as the water level was raised by 7 ft?   Just a rough order of magnitude calculation suggests several  million cubic feet.  One of the arguments against development in the lake area has to do with the potential damage from soil erosion.  Again, I’d be foolish to argue that development won’t have any impact on the lake, but any normal development issues or unmulched garden soils, would seem to pale next to 30 miles of shoreline mixing in the lake.

It may not have been a coincidence that one historical source I looked at noted that during the “1940’s and since: there has been about one fish-kill per decade “

Another thing to consider in the phosphorus equation is that the newly created shoreline, with water levels held constant by the dam, will continually leach more phosphorus into the water than the stronger natural shoreline.    Natural shorelines with their varying water levels promote healthy riparian zones with plenty of plant life to protect shoreline soil.  We’ve all seen ponds, streams and natural lakes where as water levels recede during the late part of summer, grasses and plants keep growing right down to the water level.  Then as water levels rise in the fall and storm driven waves lap against the shoreline, the grasses are there in abundance to hold the soil in place.  In contrast, when dams hold water levels to a year round consistent level the riparian areas all but disappear except in the most shallow shorelines and without riparian areas wave actions constantly undercut shorelines with continually drops fresh soil and phosphorus into the lake.

lake whatcom piped outHistorical information also pointed out a big issue regarding water flow through the lake.  Prior to the COB pipeline, when the lake flow was natural, as little as 5-8 million gallons of of water per day flowed through the creek during much of the year.   I can’t find a definitive number, but it looks like the COB and others are draining anywhere from 5-20 million gallons per day from near the middle of the lake.  The net effect during much of the year would be the creation of backwater areas with relatively little flow.  To add insult to the condition of the lake, these backwater areas are also the shallowest and most developed areas of the lake.  Anything, natural or unnatural that enters the lake in these areas during warmer weather will just sit there simmering in a big crock pot.

I’m not advocating flushing the lake with extra water to remove pollutants, however restoring normal flow would both move the warmest water off the surface and down the creek as well as helping to mix the layers of water that remain in the lake.

duck-with-diaper So what’s wrong with Lake Whatcom is that we screwed it up trying to make it water reservoir.  We put in the dam and we put in a new drain.   We can stop all development, fine people who won’t use eco-friendly soap, bring litigation on parents who let their kids pee while learning to swim, heck we could even diapers the ducks, but the lake won’t be fixed unless we undo our screw ups; plug the hole and remove the dam.  Restore the lake to restore the lake.

Plugging the drain would initially leave a lot of thirsty and ripe smelling hamsters who could either leave or come up with a solution that keeps the lake healthy.  One solution would be to remove the water after it leaves the lake and storing it in a reserve that is protected from landslides, diaperless ducks and other previously mentioned calamities.  And perhaps some progressive thinker would figure out a way to glean a little hydro power from the water as it travels down the hill to the holding pond.

I’ll grant that this is a costly solution, but it is the only real solution seen.   And it’s not like their hasn’t been a lot of money thrown at studies, experts and enforcement, we just need to redirect the aim towards a solution.








Pacific Reporter



1 Comment

  1. I agree generally more should be done to restore the natural flow of the lake. But doing this and then creating a “holding pond” is not the silver bullet by any means. Let’s think this through a bit:

    This proposal would require us to build a reservoir (or as you say, “reserve that is protected from landslides, etc.”) of sufficient height somewhere to supply the City with water. We’d need to find a place for it. And then it’d need to be safe. And then we’d have to maintain it and regularly upgrade it.

    And even if we did all that, the water coming in from the lake that’s used to fill this “holding pond” could still easily become a problem if development and pollution continue, even without the dam.

    Moreover, this incredibly expensive government project (a.k.a. “holding pond”) that you propose is not the only solution available, either. We could simply protect the reservoir we have, which is what we’ve chosen to do.

    The “off-site reserve” solution would really be trading one big problem for another one…

    Comment by Matt — March 2, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

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