Lake Whatcom Conservation

NCAS Lake Whatcom Information (on this page):   

Draft TMDL

On April 24, 2008 the DOE presented a draft version of the phosphorus and fecal coliform total maximum daily loads (TMDL) for Lake Whatcom to county officials. More will be said about this document in the future, but it states, in short, that either 74% of the development that existed in 2003 must be mitigated, or 89% of the development at full watershed build-out. This is likely to be a daunting task; for example, if other mitigation measures are unavailable, the number of developed acres in Sudden Valley would need to be reduced to 43 from what is likely to be several hundred currently. It will be interesting to see what the county’s response is during the comment period. The draft can be downloaded here.

Large Development Proposals

Land on the hilltops of Squalicum, Lookout and Stewart Mountains around Lake Whatcom brings an increasing price as view residential property, and this drives developers to push forward proposals that in no way fit with the Comprehensive Plan for this area.

  • Vineyard Development on Squalicum Mountain: The initial proposal would cluster 46-60 homes on a 680 acre parcel at the top of Squalicum Mountain, and require an extension of services from the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District beyond their current boundaries. In early 2009, the developers instead proposed selling off the property in 20 acre lots – to be serviced by a 2 mile paved road through this forest land. In March 2009, Whatcom County re-issued a MDNS for the road portion of this project.


    Map showing area of Vineyard Proposal (click to enlarge)

More information here:


(Back to Top)

NCAS Position Paper, 2002:

Lake Whatcom at the Crossroads: Protecting Our Water Supply for Future Generations

First Presented at the May 2002 Membership Meeting


Over the past 15 years, North Cascades Audubon Society has repeatedly gone on record regarding our concern with the continuing degradation of Lake Whatcom.

Lake Whatcom is the source of drinking water for approximately 67,000 City of Bellingham and 15,000 Whatcom County citizens – nearly 50% of the County population depends on this drinking water resource. The watershed as a whole provides an enormous variety of recreational opportunities, irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat and serves a key role in flood control. Despite the lake’s obvious and compelling benefits, both the degree and number of threats to its health are on the rise. Rapid housing development, septic systems, storm water runoff, timber harvests, hazardous substances, recreational misuse, and the lack of a comprehensive management plan are all contributing to momentum that leaves the future of the watershed in serious jeopardy.

City and County governments and private organizations have taken measures to address the issue. Some progress has been made, particularly in educational efforts aimed at citizen actions that can reduce pollution in the lake. However, efforts need to be greatly accelerated and expanded because of the critical nature of this issue.

The Problem

It is clear that residential development is the biggest single polluter of the lake. Studies conducted over the past 15 years point to the fact that increasing residential development is associated with declining levels of dissolved oxygen in the lake and associated declines in water quality. Chemical effects of low oxygen conditions include increased conversion of mercury to its highly toxic methylated forms, and release of iron, hydrogen sulfide (unpleasant odors), and nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen from sediments. More tangible are the associated loss of fish and wildlife habitat, increases in drinking water treatment costs and an increase in health risks associated with contaminants.

Non-point pollution (stormwater runoff) is the major threat to water quality in Lake Whatcom. Research reports signs of accelerated deterioration in the northwest portion of the lake (Basin 1). Basin 1 is experiencing severe oxygen depletion and heavy metals problems related to runoff from development. There are strong indications these problems are spreading to the adjacent basin (Basin 2) where the City’s water intake is located.

Silver Beach Creek and Austin Creek, as well as Cable Street and Park Place storm drains are now polluted enough to be eligible for listing as public health hazards. Basin 1 and Silver Beach Creek were officially listed by the Washington State Department of Ecology in 2000 as impaired water bodies for low levels of dissolved oxygen and high levels of fecal coliform respectively. Note that Lake Whatcom has been listed in 2003 for the following additional impairments: phosphorus, mercury, pcb’s, and dieldrin.

The watershed currently (as of November 2002) has 4,737 residences, and under current zoning there could ultimately be 12,468 residences. Current watershed population is approximately 13,000 residents. Current zoning would allow a total of at least 28,000 residents in the watershed.

Potential solutions to problems in the lake are complicated by the fact that the water’s cross government and jurisdictional boundaries, leaving no one authority in charge. Conflicts between the goal of additional residential development and protection of the water supply make for a certain paralysis in decision making.

Working Toward a Solution

The following recommendations are first steps toward addressing this critical problem:

  • The public must force government to pay more attention to protecting water quality in the watershed. Citizens need to pressure city and county governments to comply with State of Washington growth management directives which prohibit urban levels of development in the watershed.
  • The City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, Water District 10, and natural resource agencies must coordinate the development and implementation of a comprehensive plan to significantly limit future growth, lower density and reduce pollution going into the lake.
  • Until such a plan is developed, adopted and implemented, the Bellingham and Whatcom County Councils should place a moratorium on new development in the watershed. Included in this plan must be measures to:
  • Improve and accelerate efforts for transfer of development rights away from the watershed to more suitable areas where growth to more appropriate and less destructive.
  • Provide greater incentives for lot consolidation. Provide greater incentives and tax breaks for property owners who forgo development.
  • Spread the costs of permanent protective measures among all watershed users. Owners of undeveloped property in the watershed should not bear the brunt of costs of watershed protection alone. Establish fair user fees for all watershed users to be utilized for watershed protection.
  • Strengthen and rigorously enforce stringent storm water standards that greatly reduce the amount of impervious surfaces and force as much runoff as possible into the ground. Single family homes must not be exempt from standards applied to larger developments.
  • Expand efforts to educate the public about the need for stricter development rules to protect the lake.

It is far less expensive to pay for, and technically easier to protect our water source with proactive measures now than to pay to repair a denigrated system and absorb additional costs for treatment later.

What Can You Do? • Contact Elected Officials and express your concerns, especially, the Whatcom County Council, Bellingham City Council, Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen and Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson (now Dan Pike). Advocate for a Comprehensive Watershed Protection Strategy that incorporates the recommendations listed above. • Educate Yourself and Others. Spread the word about your concerns. Citizen action is a critical component to a solution. • Conserve Water Resources. • Support the Clean Water Alliance and People for Lake Whatcom. • Join the North Cascades Audubon Society, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society. We are dedicated to local and national wildlife and natural resource conservation and protection. Contact us at More Lake Whatcom related information can be found at

(Back to Top)