Lake Whatcom is the drinking water source for over 100,000 residents of Whatcom County, approximately half the county's population. It provides drinking water for the City of Bellingham, Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, several other smaller water districts/associations, and about 250 homes that draw water directly from the lake.
The Lake Whatcom watershed is a multi-use watershed with a variety of land and water-based uses. Past and current land uses include mining, logging, residential development, and recreation. As a result of human activities in the watershed over time, the lake and a number of its tributaries are facing water quality concerns caused by pollutants in stormwater runoff. The ongoing watershed management challenge is balancing human activities and uses while improving water quality and maintaining safe, clean drinking water. Management is further complicated by shared jurisdiction between the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County, state and federal regulations, tribal water rights, and the city's operation of the diversion facility on the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River.
History of the Lake Whatcom Management Program
Numerous studies, reports, and plans have been developed over many decades regarding Lake Whatcom and how it should be managed. However, until the early 1990s, there was no overall management strategy developed and agreed upon by all all three of the local jurisdictions that play a role in the watershed's management. In 1990, the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Water District 10 (now the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District) began meeting to develop a joint management strategy for the Lake Whatcom watershed. The resulting Lake Whatcom Management Program guides actions to protect Lake Whatcom as a long-term supply of drinking water and meet federal Clean Water Act requirements.
Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham, and Water and Sewer District began meeting to develop a long-term management strategy for the lake.
The Lake Whatcom Management Committee, composed of the County Executive, Bellingham Mayor, and Water and Sewer District Manager, developed a draft set of goals and policies to guide management actions in the watershed. Six general goal statements along with 21 specific goals related to quality, quantity, distribution, and fish/wildlife were included. The draft goals were presented to the legislative bodies of each jurisdiction and the public. Modifications were made to the goals and policies that were subsequently adopted by the legislative bodies in November 1992 (Joint Resolution Whatcom County 92-73, Bellingham No. 92-68, District No. 560).
The Management Committee developed a strategy to implement the goals and policies. The strategy was endorsed by the Legislative bodies on April 28. Eight specific goals were targeted for immediate action: land use, forest practices, spill response, conservation, public education/involvement, data/information management, stormwater, and septic systems. Plans were developed for each of these areas and jointly adopted by each jurisdiction. A land use plan was adopted in 1993 and largely deferred to the Growth Management Act (GMA) planning process as the method to address land use issues.
In addition to the land use plan, action plans were adopted for five of the remaining seven high priority areas (Joint Resolution Whatcom County 96-005, Bellingham No. 65-94, District 10 No. 591). The adopted plans targeted data/information management, spill response, conservation, public education/involvement, and forest practices.
Elements of the adopted plans were implemented however, full implementation was not possible due to resource limitations. Septic system actions were undertaken as part of a contract between the City and County. Through the GMA process, additional goals and policies were adopted by the City and County regarding the lake.
The City, County, and Water and Sewer District allocated $375,000 toward protection and management efforts in the watershed. Funds were specifically targeted at stormwater management, land use/development, septic systems, continued implementation of the adopted public education/involvement, spill response, data/information, and conservation plans.
In May 1998, the jurisdictions formalized their joint commitment to protect and manage the lake through adoption of an “Interlocal Agreement Between City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Water District 10 Concerning Joint Management of Lake Whatcom.”
The 1999 Management Plan was adopted in January by the District Commissioners, Bellingham City Council, and Whatcom County Council. Although actions were targeted at each of the 21 goals/policies, a specific priority was placed on actions related to land use, stormwater management, and watershed ownership.
In 2000, a five-year work plan was developed for ten program areas: watershed ownership, stormwater management, urbanization/land development, community outreach, data and information management, spill response/hazardous materials, fish/wildlife/forestry, transportation, recreation, and utilities and waste management. Specific priority was placed on activities related to watershed ownership, stormwater management, and urbanization/land development. An Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team (ICT) was developed with staff representatives from each of the three jurisdictions.
Efforts of the Joint Lake Whatcom Management Program were coordinated with the WRIA 1 Watershed Planning Project and the Washington State Department of Ecology Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Study. Through coordinated efforts, additional tributary and storm event water quality and quantity data was collected to help develop and calibrate pollutant loading and lake response models. These models will assist in the identification of priority areas and selection of management options to protect and enhance water quality within the Lake Whatcom watershed. In 2003, Water District 10 became the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District.
In 2005, the second five-year work plan was developed and adopted for the Joint Lake Whatcom Management Program. This work plan was an update of the previous five-year plan and included the same ten program areas (“watershed ownership” was renamed “land preservation”). High priority programs areas are stormwater management, land preservation, and urbanization/land development. In November 2005, the 2005-2009 work program was updated for 2006.
In 2010, the third five-year work plan was adopted. A new format was developed for this work plan which included twelve program areas. This work plan was submitted to the Department of Ecology as part of the initial phase of the TMDL response strategy.
In 2015, the fourth five-year work plan was adopted by the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District. The work plan was re-structured in 2015 to make it more accessible to readers while providing the structure needed for consistent and data-driven accounting of activities and progress.
In 2020, the fifth five-year work plan was adopted by the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District. This work plan follows the same format and program areas as the 2015-2019 plan. It includes activities that are required by the State Department of Ecology to meet TMDL water quality objectives.
The structure of the Lake Whatcom Management Program includes legislative bodies, a management team, an interjurisdictional coordinating team, agency staff, and advisory committees.
The Legislative Bodies
The legislative bodies from the three jurisdictions provide policy guidance and direction for the Lake Whatcom Management Program. These legislative bodies are the Bellingham City Council, Whatcom County Council, and Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District Board of Commissioners. At least one Joint Council/Commission meeting is held each year for the Lake Whatcom Management Program.
Lake Whatcom Management Committee (LWMC)
The Lake Whatcom Management Committee is the City of Bellingham Mayor, Whatcom County Executive, and Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District General Manager. This team is responsible for implementing the policy guidance and direction provided by the legislative bodies.
Lake Whatcom Joint Policy Group
The Lake Whatcom Joint Policy Group includes representatives from the Bellingham City Council, Whatcom County Council, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District Board of Commissioners, and Sudden Valley Community Association, as well as staff from the Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team. This group meets about four times a year to discuss Lake Whatcom policy topics and to provide policy guidance and direction to staff.
Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team (ICT)
The Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team (ICT) was created in 2000 to help coordinate activities and programs between the three jurisdictions. The team consists of staff from each of the three jurisdictions. It meets as needed to review the progress of tasks identified in the current work plan, coordinate activities, respond to policy concerns, and develop new work plans.