Protecting Lake Whatcom Drinking Water

Keeping local drinking water safe and affordable when pollution, development, and invasive species put it in danger.

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Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for 100,000 Whatcom County residents, including Bellingham, faces an onslaught of threats — from logging and development, to pesticides and invasive mussels hitching rides on un-inspected boats. Pollution of Lake Whatcom is on the rise, making drinking water treatment more costly, and the byproducts unhealthier for people to consume. Water treatment and lake restoration will only get more costly the longer we wait.

Read about how RE Sources supporters helped secure an equitable and stable funding source for Lake Whatcom drinking water protection by establishing a Stormwater Utility District for the County portion of the watershed to join with the City of Bellingham. People who live in the Lake Whatcom watershed pay a fee based on the amount of hard, impervious surfaces (like driveways, rooftops, and parking lots) on their property, because more of these surfaces allows more pollutants to flow straight into the lake. 

Do you live in the area that drains into Lake Whatcom? Check this Lake Whatcom Watershed map.

Algae blooms make water more expensive and chemical-intensive to treat

Excess algae grows when there are too many nutrients in a water body. Phosphorus is the main nutrient of concern, which comes from leaky septic systems, yard waste like grass clippings and leaf litter, fertilizers, land clearing and disturbance from logging and development, some soaps and detergents, and animal and pet waste. When it rains, these sources make their way into water bodies like Lake Whatcom. Stormwater runoff is especially exacerbated when there are significant amounts of impervious surfaces in the watershed — like roads, rooftops, and sidewalks allowing the water to rush into the lake without any natural filtration from soil and native vegetation.  These cumulative impacts have led to unnatural algal growth in our drinking water. 

There are health impacts and huge costs to people associated with drinking heavily-treated water from a source that has significant algae growth. The treatment process requires a lot of chlorine gas to remove the algae and disinfect the water before it reaches the tap. When chlorine reacts with algae, disinfection byproducts such as chloroform – a known carcinogen – remain in our tap water. Thankfully, the City of Bellingham built a dissolved air flotation (DAF) pretreatment system to physically remove much of this troublesome algae.  This pretreatment plant has reduced the need to use lots of chlorine to treat the water but came with a hefty price tag of $15 million. Another stage of treatment, if pollution continues, would likely cost taxpayers even more. 

Too much algae can also create dead zones, where there’s not enough oxygen in the water, which aquatic life relies on to breathe — just like we do! Dead zones are created when a large algae bloom dies and the oxygen is consumed by the bacteria metabolizing the decaying matter. This is one of the main reasons Lake Whatcom is on a 50-year cleanup plan (also known as a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL) to reduce the amount of phosphorous entering the lake. By the year 2066, the City and County must prevent 3,150 pounds of phosphorus from entering the lake.

To make matters worse, algae can clog the gills of fish and invertebrates, shade out native vegetation, and make people and animals sick with the toxic chemicals some algae produces.

Locally and globally, algae blooms are occurring earlier and lasting longer because water temperatures are rising and nutrients continue to enter the lake.  Using the Water Reporter App we have started tracking algal growth in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. If you spot algae in a waterbody please report it on the Water Reporter App and use the hashtag,#algae.  You can also use the App to report other types of water pollution. 

Learn how to spot and report pollution

Invasive species could cause irreparable damage

Zebra and quagga mussels are invasive species from Eurasia which showed up in North America in the 1980s. If introduced into Lake Whatcom, one mussel is able to produce up to one million offspring and while they grow, they attach to hard surfaces. They also can live up to 30 days when out of water. One boat carrying one of these mussels could cause irreparable damage to Lake Whatcom and cost us hundreds of millions of dollars.

They can cause damage to water intake structures restricting flows to drinking water supplies, increase water treatment and maintenance costs, destroy docks and pilings, create long-term taste and odor issues in drinking water, and damage equipment. These invasive species are currently found in some lakes in California, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and throughout the Great Lakes. 

It’s vital that we close loopholes and improve boat inspection processes to prevent these organisms from hitching a ride into our drinking water.

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The City of Bellingham’s drinking water meets federal health-based drinking water standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, meeting legal standards does not necessarily mean safe or protective of human health. Legal standards are often the product of compromises for economic or other reasons — it’s expensive to fully treat or protect drinking water from risks. Additionally, standards set for contaminants in the Safe Drinking Water Act have not been updated in over 20 years.

According to best available science compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the City of Bellingham’s drinking water exceeds human health guidelines for Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs) by over 235 times! TTHMs are disinfection byproducts from using chlorine to remove algae during the treatment process and they are known carcinogens. EWG conducted a peer-reviewed study, Cumulative risk analysis of carcinogenic contaminants in United States drinking water”, to determine the 1 in 1 million cancer risk level for TTHMs which they concluded was 0.15 parts per billion unlike the federal standard of 80 parts per billion. The City of Bellingham 2018 Consumer Confidence Report detected an upper limit of 42.5 ppb for TTHMs with the highest site average of 36.6 ppb. The highest upper limit ever detected for the City of Bellingham for TTHMs was 79.9 ppb in 2015. 

To make sure your tap water is safer to drink, you can find appropriate water filters that remove these contaminants here.

Motorized boats can introduce aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels from other infested water bodies, and damage or erode shorelines on the lake by speeding too quickly and causing large waves. They also have the potential to leak gasoline into the lake which contain cancer-causing contaminants like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (commonly referred to as BTEX). BTEX are difficult to remove in the water treatment process.

Like motorized boats, non-motorized boats that are also used in other places can introduce aquatic invasive species from other infested water bodies.

Yes. Despite the Lake Whatcom reconveyance that transferred about 8,000 acres of Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) public timber land to Whatcom County for parks and recreation purposes, there are still a few thousand acres held as public timber lands and are on a regular timber harvest schedule. Other timber activities like road building and pesticide spraying are allowed in the Lake Whatcom watershed. In addition to public timber land, there are a few thousand acres of private timber land.

First, you can see if you qualify for the Lake Whatcom Homeowner Incentive Program (HIP). This is a rebate program for qualifying properties to reduce the amount of concrete and other hard surfaces on their property and plant native vegetation to help filter stormwater runoff. 

If you don’t qualify, you can check out this handy guide to help you make steps to minimize your impact on the watershed.

In 2019, Whatcom County approved a stormwater utility fee for the recently-formed Lake Whatcom Stormwater Utility area (or “stormwater district”), for unincorporated property owners within the watershed to help fund desperately needed services. The City of Bellingham has had fees (Stormwater Utility Fee and Watershed Fee) to finance Lake Whatcom for years, paid for by people living in the Lake Whatcom watershed and throughout city limits. Now, everyone living in the lake’s watershed helps fund pollution prevention regardless of city limits. Without the help of residents around the lake pitching in, there is not enough funding to adequately service your drinking water. This way, anyone who boats, drives, landscapes, and lives in the watershed will be a part of keeping everyone’s drinking water in Lake Whatcom safe.

Funding will initially be used for the County’s contribution to the Lake Whatcom Homeowner Incentive Program (HIP) and for projects along roadways and ditches to collect stormwater before it hits the lake (“stormwater capital projects”). HIP provides technical and financial assistance to Lake Whatcom Watershed residents to complete water quality landscape improvements on their property that reduce runoff and pollution entering the lake.

The County currently funds HIP and stormwater capital projects through a combination of sources: the Road Fund, County-wide Flood Fund, and the Lake Whatcom stormwater district (starting in 2020).

The average property in the watershed will contribute about $5 per month to the utility, based on a property’s level of contribution to pollution. See the table below for the sliding scale depending on the size of a property. A small footprint is less than 2,500 square feet. A medium footprint is 2,501 to 8,400 square feet — which costs less than $12 per month to protect and restore 100,000 peoples’ drinking water. A large footprint is over 8,400 square feet.

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While there is a plan to reduce phosphorus pollution, it is on a 50-year-long timeline. We must act to shorten that timeline, it is simply too long. Logging and timber harvests continue to add huge amounts of phosphorus pollution despite the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance in 2013, which transferred some state logging lands to Whatcom County for the creation of a park. And most noticeable of all are motorized boats on our drinking water, adding fossil fuel-derived pollutants. 

Keep following us as we continue our efforts to protect and restore Lake Whatcom. Sign up for email alerts if you haven’t already!

Get in touch with our team!

Alexander Harris, Land & Water policy Manager,