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Add wildfire, climate change to the list of Lake Whatcom worries

Annual report to Bellingham, Whatcom County leaders shows little trend in pollution levels

A petition to open Lake Whatcom to cutthroat trout fishing has been denied by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
A canoe traverses Lake Whatcom in May 2022. County and Bellingham city officials are adding climate action to the Lake Whatcom Management Plan's to-do list, starting in 2025. (Noah Harper/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Elected officials say Lake Whatcom is facing relatively new threats in 2024: wildfire and climate change.

County Executive Satpal Sidhu set the tone for a Wednesday, March 27 Lake Whatcom Management Program, a joint meeting between city and county councils, and the water and sewer district commission.

“I believe the biggest risk to Lake Whatcom watershed is the risk of a catastrophic fire,” Sidhu said. He mentioned last year’s Blue Canyon Fire, which started on Aug. 28 and burned about 40 acres on the lake’s south end. 

“Had this fire gotten out of control, it would have posed a great health and safety risk to the watershed,” including negative impacts to water quality, Sidhu said.

Lake Whatcom’s water quality is especially important because the lake serves as the drinking water source for about 100,000 people in Whatcom County, including residents of Bellingham.

Officials from the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District are working within a 50-year timeline to correct the lake’s excessive phosphorus and deficient levels of dissolved oxygen. 

They’re roughly a decade into the project, and nothing dramatic has happened with pollution readings during that time.

Fires strip forests of vegetation, which increases stormwater runoff — the primary source of phosphorus in the lake. Phosphorus is the most significant pollutant in the state’s 2016 report that serves as the guiding document for Whatcom County’s 50-year cleanup plan.

Climate change is also expected to strengthen atmospheric rivers, which will also increase storm runoff.

City and county scientists said at Wednesday’s meeting they will add climate action as a new element to the Lake Whatcom Management Program’s next five-year plan, which will be completed this year and be in effect from 2025–29.

As for those less-than-dramatic pollution results, Angela Strecker, Western Washington University’s director of the Institute for Watershed Studies, explained that measures of phosphorus, dissolved oxygen and algae blooms were more or less stable, although phosphorus appeared to be declining from a peak around 2010.

Dissolved oxygen went up significantly in 2023, but Stecker cautioned that one year does not make a trend.

“It is promising to see kind of this bump up of oxygen over time, and so that’s something that we’ll be keeping an eye on in the years to come,” Strecker said.

Bellingham council member Michael Lilliquist didn’t strike the same promising note in his comments toward the end of the meeting.

“I think I usually have sounded a positive note,” Lilliquist said. “I’m going to stop sounding a positive note for a while and say that we’re holding steady. That’s not bad, but that’s not good.”

Ralph Schwartz is CDN’s local government reporter; reach him at; 360-922-3090 ext. 107.

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