Effects of stormwater permit on Birch Bay uncertain

Published on Wed, Apr 18, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Whatcom County stormwater planners are taking a “wait and see” approach in response to a local environmental group’s petition to have Birch Bay included in a national stormwater monitoring permit that would place more onerous demands on local stormwater management practices.

As reported last week in The Northern Light, the Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has petitioned the state department of ecology (DOE) to include Birch Bay and Blaine in a national stormwater discharge permit, which is managed by the DOE. The permit is usually limited to cities and communities with more than 10,000 people, and it would govern how stormwater is handled and monitored in the two communities.

RE Sources field investigator Lee First argues that the combined population of Blaine and Birch Bay, approximately 13,000 according to 2010 census figures, should make the national stormwater permit applicable to both communities. First cited Birch Bay’s growth and the bay’s degrading water quality as reasons the community should be included in Whatcom County’s collective stormwater permit for the Bellingham, Ferndale and Lake Whatcom urban growth areas (UGAs).

“I think there are some people who are mad, but it’s the best thing for water quality, and that’s why we’re doing it,” First said.

Currently, all cities in Whatcom County with more than 10,000 people and the above-mentioned UGAs are included in the national permit. 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.

The Whatcom County stormwater division is responsible for managing the permit requirements for the county’s UGAs, with responsibilities spread over different departments such as health, public works and planning. The county has been developing and enacting policies to fit these requirements since January 2007.

County senior stormwater planner Chip Anderson said he could not estimate what it would cost the county if Birch Bay was included in the permit.

“We’ve had to do a whole variety of things in establishing policies and procedures,” he said. “It’s numerous staff hours in a number of departments.”

County stormwater staff are gathering information the DOE needs before officials can decide whether or not to include Birch Bay in the county’s permit. Anderson said county officials have not decided whether to support or oppose Birch Bay’s inclusion.

“We don’t have enough information to answer that,” Anderson said.

Currently, Birch Bay stormwater issues are under the auspices of the Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resource Management (BBWARM) district. Ingrid Enschede, the county stormwater specialist who works with the district, said Birch Bay is unique among UGAs in the county because of the district, which collects a tax from residents for stormwater improvement projects. Through BBWARM, Enschede has been working to implement stormwater programs with the same goal as the national stormwater permit: the preservation of water quality.

“BBWARM covers some of the permit requirements, but not all of the permit requirements,” Enschede said. “And it’s on a voluntary basis, not a regulatory basis.”

DOE spokesperson Katie Skipper said the department is aware of BBWARM and the programs already in place. Skipper pointed out that while the district accomplishes many of the requirements of the national permit, its funding is not permanent and said BBWARM is not something another government agency could easily regulate.

“There’s no agency oversight,” Skipper said. “But the benefits are there. If BBWARM has been effective and people already know what they need to be doing, then the transition could be smooth.” Skipper said to expect a decision from DOE headquarters by May with an appeal period to follow.

Both Anderson and Enschede declined to predict what the DOE’s decision might be. Regardless, Anderson added, county staff would work to ensure the effectiveness of BBWARM’s programs no matter what DOE decides.

“We want to make sure our existing efforts out there (BBWARM) aren’t jeopardized,” Anderson said. “That would not be positive.”

To view RE Sources' petition, click here.