Countypromises more clean water money

Published on Thu, Sep 9, 2004 by eg Olson

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County promises more clean water money

By Meg Olson

Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen has pledged to include funding for shellfish protection in his 2005 budget proposal to county council, money the local shellfish district advisory committee says is critical to maintaining the harbor’s tentative rebirth as an oyster producing area.

“The committee has been writing plans for 10 years,” said Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee (DHSPDAC) president Geoff Menzies. “We have a recovery plan adopted by county council in 1998, in 2000 and they haven’t been implemented. It’s the county’s responsibility to see that they are.”
Menzies said that the committee had been relying on grant funding and volunteer labor to accomplish plan goals, from heightened water monitoring to public education and checking the Blaine sewer system for leaks. “We’ve done a lot of work to implement the plan,” Menzies said, “But relying on grant funding is not a reliable long-term solution.”

When Menzies, Whatcom Conservation District manager George Boggs, and consultant Christine Woodward met with Kremen and a handful of county department heads last week they were looking for $380,000 to fund positions that would take charge of implementing specific goals in the shellfish recovery plan. Menzies said Kremen had committed his administration to earmark $150,000 to $200,000 next year for shellfish, but Kremen was not available to confirm that amount. “The specifics have not yet been defined but this will likely be used to fund a shellfish coordinator position, additional resources towards hobby farm livestock management and enforcement of the Critical Areas Ordinance, water quality monitoring and some funding for special projects,” Menzies said.

A shellfish coordinator, an administrative support position that existed as part of the county’s water resources division, has not been filled since Amy Stillings, the last to hold the job, left last year. “Part of the reason was we were waiting to be sure we had the funding for it,” said county water resources division manager Bruce Roll. “Council will have to provide that policy, whether they want to fund it.”

Menzies said they also saw the need for a position in the county health department dedicated to developing an operations and maintenance program for on-site septic systems, as recommended in the shellfish recovery plan the county adopted. “It’s been adopted but the health department has never done it,” Menzies said. “Right now we have a regressive, complaint-driven approach to on-site septic systems.”

Similarly, Menzies said, funding was needed for someone to work with hobby farmers in the Drayton Harbor watershed on ways to keep animal waste out of the creeks. “Right now it’s completely complaint driven and, like on-site septics, it’s not working,” he said. Boggs said the problem of bacterial contamination in local waters could only be resolved by tackling the intertwined elements that contributed to it – failing septics, commercial farms, hobby farms, sewer systems - with coordinated initiative. “All these little pieces contribute to the waste problem,” he said. “In talking with the county it became apparent the county was not covering its part of the program.”

Boggs and Menzies both said recent meetings and follow up discussions with Kremen and Roll had given them a degree of optimism that the county was prepared to pick up the slack and start looking at ways to cover the gaps state and federal funds left in the cost of protecting natural resources for the future.

Roll agreed there was stiff competition for county funds, and Drayton Harbor was one of a growing list of marine problem areas with mounting public pressure to find solutions. “It’s important as we look at all these programs to see where truly in the big picture are the priorities,” he said. With more groups focusing on specific areas and growing ranks of dedicated volunteers working on projects to improve water quality, “it’s very difficult for us to keep up with the requests,” Roll said.

Menzies agreed funding from the county’s general fund was a stop-gap measure to keep shellfish recovery efforts moving ahead while a long-term source of funding, possibly through a tax levy, was established. Boggs also suggested impact fees for construction of homes that might have livestock and septic systems and therefore need more help in managing the contamination they generate. “They need to be paying for the services they require,” he said.

Part of the task of getting an assessment to protect water quality would be to set up a fair levy system, so that property owners who needed the most help managing pollutants paid the most, and part would be convincing voters and council members that everyone needed cleaner water.

“If we’re using creeks and rivers and streams and bays to play and paddle in, we don’t want them laden with potentially harmful bacteria,” he said. “And we certainly don’t want it in our food.”