County to oppose national stormwater permit decision

Published on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

Read More News

Whatcom County officials are planning to oppose a state Department of Ecology (DOE) decision that could force county staff to spend more resources managing stormwater discharge in Birch Bay.

The DOE has decided the county must include the Birch Bay urban growth area (UGA) on the county’s broader national storm water discharge permit. The permit currently dictates how the county’s stormwater division manages and monitors stormwater in the Bellingham and Ferndale UGAs and a portion of the Lake Whatcom UGA.

The decision is preliminary until DOE officials formally issue the permit on August 1 of this year, DOE spokesperson Katie Skipper said. The county has the right to appeal the permit within 30 days of its issuance. The requirements for Birch Bay, if it stays included, would go into effect August 1, 2013.

The inclusion of the Birch Bay UGA came following a petition from the Bellingham-based environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities that proposed adding both Birch Bay and Blaine in the updated national storm water permit. DOE officials did not include Blaine in the permit because the city did not meet the permit criteria.

The six main requirements of the permit are public education, looking for illegal connections to stormwater drainage, construction and post construction stormwater management, pollution prevention and operations and maintenance. County stormwater staff makes sure these requirements are met for the UGAs included in the permit and would do the same for Birch Bay if it is eventually included.

Wendy Steffensen was the lead scientist at RE Sources in charge of putting together the petition to include the Birch Bay area. At the June 20 Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resource Management (BBWARM) district advisory committee meeting, Steffensen attempted to answer criticisms from BBWARM committee members and explained why RE Sources felt the need to include Birch Bay in the national stormwater permit.

Steffensen and RE Sources staff took into consideration Birch Bay’s growing population and the amount of stormwater flowing into the bay when writing the petition. These factors, in addition to the amount of development in the community, are adding up to increased levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which is impacting the bay’s overall water quality, Steffensen explained.

Steffensen applauded the work BBWARM volunteers and staff have been doing since 2007 to improve water quality in Birch Bay and said the petition is meant to help those efforts.

“We want to make this a success” Steffensen said.

BBWARM’s efforts are based largely on the requirements found in the national stormwater permit, senior county stormwater planner Kraig Olason said at the June 20 BBWARM meeting. The national stormwater permit requirements would be mandatory for the county to meet, however, while the BBWARM efforts are voluntarily, Olason explained.

“The petition creates the mandate prematurely in our minds,” Olason said. “We’re not trying to get out of anything.”

Olason said the national permit requirements would produce an inventory of stormwater issues in Birch Bay, but not analyze where additional money should be spent to fix the problems. He said BBWARM is in the middle of a contract with a private firm studying where the storm water trouble spots are in the Birch Bay watershed, and this work will allow future storm water improvement projects to target these areas.

“When you don’t have a mandated program, you can really tune in on what you can do,” Olason said.

At the meeting, committee member Keats Garman said he wanted RE Sources and the DOE to give BBWARM’s efforts time to take effect before forcing more stringent requirements on the community.

Garman also asked if Birch Bay residents would have to foot the bill for the requirments. Christian Maginnis, a DOE scientist involved in the permit decision, said Whatcom County has received portions of state funds to meet requirements in its other UGAs.

“There’s no reason to think that would not continue,” she said.

Garman said he realizes the protection of Birch Bay is the priority of all the parties involved.

“We’re all in agreement about the goals,” Garman said. “If we can’t do it one way, by God we’d better do it another.”