Stormwater permit petition could hurt wallets

Published on Wed, Apr 11, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

Read More News

A Bellingham-based environmental group has begun a campaign to force Blaine and Birch Bay to be included in a national stormwater permit, a decision that could have substantial financial impacts on the city and Birch Bay.

RE Sources for Sustainable Communities petitioned the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) in February to include the communities in a national stormwater discharge permit, which is managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The permit, most commonly applied to cities and communities with more than 10,000 people, would govern the way stormwater is handled and monitored in Blaine and Birch Bay.

Lee First, a field investigator for RE Sources, argued in the petition that Blaine and Birch Bay’s inclusion in the permit would result in improved water quality for both Drayton Harbor and Birch Bay. She cited the decline in water quality of the two bodies of water as evidence that existing protections in the two communities are insufficient to handle stormwater sources, such as runoff from roads and marinas.

“We feel the impact of these [stormwater] sources are not being scrutinized now by anybody,” First said. “We think if both jurisdictions are covered under the permit, there would be more accountability for what is going into the water there.”

But Blaine Public Works director Ravyn Whitewolf disagrees. She said the permit requirements would place an undue financial burden on the city, one the city simply cannot afford. “We’re taking this very seriously,” Whitewolf said.

Currently, all cities in Whatcom County with more than 10,000 people and their respective urban growth areas (UGAs) are included in the national permit. The permit requires the cities to undertake monthly annual stormwater reporting, inspect construction sites for stormwater regulation compliance, and maintain a public education campaign to teach people about the effects stormwater runoff has on the environment.

Blaine, with its 4,684 inhabitants, is exempt from these requirements. Birch Bay, a Whatcom County UGA that is not associated with an incorporated city, is also exempt.

First claims the proximity of Blaine and Birch Bay, with a total population of just less than 13,000 according to 2010 census figures, should require that the two communities’ collective stormwater impacts be subject to the enhanced requirements. Blaine would be included in its own as a city, and Birch Bay would be included in Whatcom County’s collective permit for UGAs.

Whitewolf disagrees with the rationale offered by First and RE Sources. She points out that Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor, while both sensitive bodies of water, are separate and collect most of their stormwater runoff from only their respective communities.

Whitewolf also said that the city of Blaine has been far from negligent in handling stormwater issues within the city limits. She said the city inspects construction sites to DOE standards set down in 2005 and contracts with Lynden-based Reichhardt and Ebe Engineering to review stormwater plans for proposed developments and construction projects.

“I think that we’re already doing things for the critical habitat and species in [Drayton Harbor],” Whitewolf said. “I’m committed to handling stormwater in the most sensitive way possible.”

Whitewolf said the main difference between the stormwater requirements Blaine follows now and those RE Sources is seeking is the amount of information required by the DOE. To comply, the city would have to spend more money and staff preparing water quality reports on an monthly annual basis; money and resources Whitewolf said the city would be hard-pressed to find.

The city of Ferndale, with a population of 11,415, is included in the national permit. Ferndale was added in 2007, and Wendy LaRocque, who runs the stormwater program for the city, said the costs of compiling with the permit requirements are a constant concern.

“We’re definitely in compliance, but we don’t have enough money to go above and beyond,” she said.

Ferndale has had to implement an $8 stormwater charge per water bill to help fund the stormwater program and also takes advantage of grants from the DOE. Ferndale secured a $50,000 grant for 2009 to 2011 and is seeking an additional $100,000 for 2012.

“Those grants can only be used to implement the permit,” LaRocque said.

LaRocque said the biggest challenge in staying compliant with the national permit is the sheer number of requirements imposed upon the city. LaRocque must manage the public education program, construction site monitoring and monthly regular water quality reports, in addition to responding to reports of stormwater violations called in by Ferndale residents.

“There’s a huge range of activities, so I don’t know if one aspect is more difficult than others,” LaRocque said. “It’s just there’s so much to do and I’m the only person [managing it].”

 DOE spokesperson Katie Skipper said local DOE staff are just beginning to review RE Source’s petition. Skipper expects a final decision to come from DOE headquarters in May, but would not predict which way the decision might go.

“It’s too early to say one way or another,” Skipper said.

Whitewolf also would not predict which way DOE officials will eventually lean, but she hopes Blaine’s current status remains unchanged. In the meantime, Whitewolf said DOE staff has been efficient and thorough in gathering additional information from Blaine Public Works.

“I can say they’re being very thorough and are treating this fairly,” Whitewolf said.