County sides with BBWARM on national stormwater permit

Published on Wed, Jul 18, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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A Whatcom County official has written a strongly worded letter to the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) protesting the agency’s decision to include Birch Bay in the county’s national stormwater permit (NSP).

DOE has issued a preliminary decision to include the Birch Bay urban growth area (UGA) in Whatcom County’s NSP. The permit currently dictates how stormwater practices are managed and regulated in three other county UGAs.

The DOE’s determination came after Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities submitted a petition to the DOE requesting Birch Bay be added. The requirements for Birch Bay, if included, would go into effect August 1, 2013.

In a July 10 letter to DOE’s, Whatcom County assistant public works director Jon Hutchings said the DOE’s analysis of the six petition factors that they used to make its decision contained “factual errors and poorly founded assumptions.” Hutchings also said extending the reach of the county’s NSP requirements into Birch Bay would “jeopardize the community-based funding mechanism for the Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management (BBWARM) District.”

The six main requirements of the permit are public education, seeking out 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 and would need to do the same for Birch Bay if it is included.

Hutchings agreed with a few basic tenets of DOE’s reasoning, namely that Birch Bay is a sensitive water body and stormwater runoff from the community is a source of bacterial pollution, but said most others were inaccurate. For instance, Hutchings maintains DOE researchers did not use the most current data in determining bacteria  pollution levels in Birch Bay. Hutchings said water quality monitoring data for the bay show decreasing bacteria levels that DOE officials have not taken into account.

In a later interview, Hutchings said the additional requirements could also jeopardize BBWARM’s current efforts by forcing a top-down approach to stormwater issues when a community-based one already exists. He said DOE’s preliminary decision could have the unintended consequence of making Birch Bay residents think BBWARM’s efforts are without merit.

 “The Birch Bay solution is one that needs to be heralded from the mountain tops rather than being pressed down in the mud,”
Hutchings said.

DOE staff, however, stand by their preliminary decision to include the Birch Bay area in the county’s NSP. Agency spokesperson Katie Skipper said nothing in Hutchings’ letter has made DOE rethink their position.

Christina Maginnis, the DOE scientist whose research made the case for the decision, said the water quality monitoring data she obtained showed Birch Bay’s water quality still not meeting state requirements, despite Hutchings’ claims. Additionally, she said the data Hutchings refers to monitored fewer stormwater outfalls than the data she compiled.

Skipper said she does not see DOE’s preliminary decision as faulting BBWARM’s efforts. Rather, Birch Bay’s inclusion in the NSP should only help remedy stormwater issues in the community more quickly.

“[DOE sees] it as furthering the work the county is already doing and eventually meeting water quality standards,” Skipper said. “And that’s the goal, I think, for everyone involved.”

Hutchings said his letter was meant to start a dialogue with DOE to make them aware of the decision’s possible ramifications.
He said he’s aware of the official appeal process for the permit, but said Whatcom County officials have not begun to discussing appealing the permit, which will be finalized on August 1.

Whatcom County will have 30 days after August 1 to appeal the final permit, Skipper said. If the county disagrees with DOE’s decision, the appeal will heard by the state pollution control hearings board.

“The structure is there to refute the DOE’s determination, once it becomes final, and that structure is the appeals process,” Skipper said.