City of Bellingham and Whatcom County debate Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) fees

Aliens Among UsThe City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Council are each grappling with what to do about the potential for invasive species contamination of our waters.  If you do an internet search on “aquatic invasive species,” (AIS) you will find a lot of information, probably more than you really wish to know, but with all things governmental it is important that we all pay attention, because it’s going to cost you if you don’t.  Starting in 2013, if you own recreational watercraft, you are going to be required to purchase an AIS permit before it will be allowed in Lake Whatcom.  The debate for Whatcom County, is whether to require an AIS permit only on Lake Whatcom, or on all water resources in Whatcom County and how much to charge for it.  On the other side of the fence is the City of Bellingham (COB), whose focus is on Lake Padden and that portion of Lake Whatcom, which lies within the boundaries of the Bellingham city limits.  City of Bellingham’s focus of concern is; “What to charge for their AIS permit and how to get Whatcom County to play nice with them?”  Current concensus appears to be a $50.00 annual fee and $20.00 per launch fee, for the AIS permit.  What happens if you are stopped and found to be without the required AIS permit?  You shall face a minimum $250.00, up to $1,000.00 fine.  If you trailer your watercraft and do not want to be subjected to another inspection when you return to Lake Whatcom you will be required to have a metal zip-tie that is secured to your boat and trailer.  No exceptions.  Missing from any discussion I observed was  how the program will disrupt local fishing if/when they gate the entrance to the boat launch at Bloedel Donovan Park.  I wonder, do you think the program will concern itself with the needs of the fishing community?  You know those darn lake fishies have been known to be early risers and late to rest.

What brought this harsh action to our beloved public water parks?  For some time now, Lake Whatcom has suffered during long hot, dry spells with european water milfoil which can clog up the intake pipes at the city’s water treatment center and removes oxygen from the lake water.  Milfoil is very adaptive to our climate, blooms early and become a prolific problem if not effectively managed within a two-year cycle.  Where and how did milfoil get introduced to the United States?  It was once commonly sold as an aquatic plant for household aquariums and was first identified to have established itself in Lake Meridian near Seattle, in 1965.  If a microscopic piece is attached to anything that enters the water, it does have the potential to establish itself and multiply quickly. There are ecologically safe treatments for milfoil, such as; milfoil weevil (Euhrychiopsis Lecontei) , a moth called Acentria Ephemerella and a caterpillar known as Cricotopus Myriophylli.   All of these insects love to eat milfoil.  Of course there are herbicides that are also considered to be ecologically safe, but are very costly to administer.

The other little pest that has been identified to be present in Lake Whatcom is the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) zebra_mussel which are native to Eastern Europe and Asia.  These pesky critters, if allowed to freely multiply could foul up the city’s water intake pipes, too.  They like water pipes because of the constant flow of water available for them to siphon water and feed themselves.  Also, they can devastate the food source for other native species.  They are highly adaptable to our environment, readily attach themselves to hard surfaces, survive out of water for up to four days and are hard to fully remove once attached.  They also have microscopic larvae called veligers that are undetectable to the human eye and can be found in anything that can carry small amounts of water, even scuba diving equipment.  They do have natural predators of fish and diving ducks, and are actually edible for human consumption.  The water pipes can be cleaned by scouring of the pipes, electrical current, acoustical vibration, UV light, carbon dioxide injection and many other safe treatments for removal.

There are some who question whether what is considered an invasive species now, has any real significant long-term negative effects on species evolution?  After all, human studies of species migration and its relation to species extinction, is fairly recent.  Species have been migrating across the globe since the beginning of time and are being accused of ecological mutiny, mass murder, and other crimes contrary to nature.  It would seem that the case for hysteria over aquatic invasive species in Whatcom County is premature, considering all opinions and the case is far from closed.

“All pigs are equal, except some pigs are more equal.”  from George Orwells, “Animal Farm,” circa  1945

It appears that Aquatic invasive species are the latest tool to vilify water recreation.  So, the effort to remove all human activity from Lake Whatcom has again been ramped up.  It wasn’t long-ago that water degradation by pollutants from motorized watercraft was debunked, milfoil has been a problem in Lake Whatcom for as long as I can remember and the zebra mussel is just the latest villan; that’s being used to regulate and most likely deny water recreation to Whatcom County residents and tourists.  Will the people who supported the Reconveyance of DNR trust land back to Whatcom County management, for the purpose of additional public recreation in the Lake Whatcom watershed for hiking, biking, camping, and horseback riding, stand with solidarity for local water recreation?  Or will they show a lack of concern for water recreation and prove their contrarian ideology?

Last week I watched the latest City of Bellingham, AIS permit, committee  discussion, of March 11th, 2013.  Throughout the discussion it is clear “they” will charge whatever the “public will “bear,” seeking eventual 100%  recovery of costs to operate the program, even if it removes all water recreation from Lake Whatcom.  They can use the fear of a potential threat of invasive species to regulate; when, who and how the public can recreate on, in or around Lake Whatcom.  Their cavalier comments have been documented here so that you, the residents and tax-paying voters, know what the elected leaders of Bellingham think about recreational boating and especially those pesky boat loving tourists.  All power is local and if you like what is said, then by all means keep voting them back into office.  If you too are offended by their attitude, want economic vitality and diversity for our community, then we will need new leadership that understands what it means to respect all of the residents, and tourists, who spend their hard-earned dollars in Bellingham and all around Whatcom County.

Below I’ve captured in writing a lot of what was said at the committee meeting.  Or, you can just play the audio version provided below and listen to the meeting in its entirety for yourself.

~ Kris Halterman

COB Aquatic Invasive Species Committee Meeting Audio for Monday, March 11, 2013

Lehman: “Do you both think I’m correct in assuming that our highest priority with this is recouping the cost of an invasive species inspection?  Is that the ultimate goal we’re trying to go for?

Snapp: “I think the ultimate goal is to protect our water supply.”

Lehman: “Correct, but with this fee structure is the goal that we recoup money for the program?”

Snapp: “I think that was our original intent and this first year there’s a whole lot of learning that’s going to take place.  I’m worried about the County pulling the rug out and when it goes to County Council, having a bunch of speeches all of a sudden.  I’m sort of sour because of another experience with that.  And, I don’t want to see this go on for years and years, with us trying to get support from them.  So, I know that staff intends to work with us.  They worked with us right from the start.  I’m just nervous about the political side of the County in this.”

Lilliquist: “I want us to think really carefully when we say, when we act, as if we are concerned about driving boats elsewhere.  If no visiting boats came to Lake Whatcom that might be the best solution.  So the concern here is actually to drive them to other points on Lake Whatcom?  If all other points of access or all boats on the water are required to show their inspection sticker, then that isn’t the concern.  You see what I’m saying?  This is a peculiar situation.  We don’t need to worry about driving away customers, because the truth is we’re uncomfortable with the customers in the first place.  See what I’m a saying?  This isn’t the usual marketplace reaction.”

Lehman: “Except, if we need their income to fund our program.”

Lehman: “Agreed, the County needs to be on the same page.”

Snapp: “I’d be real happy if they’d go someplace else.”

Fleetwood: “I’m curious, do we have sufficient data that allows us to at least make a prediction on the costs?”

Hutchings: “The range of uncertainty and a new program that has not been tried and true.  They’re all in a start-up phase.  The answer is we have made an educated estimate.  That’s one step better than an educated guess.”

Lilliquist: “My personal preference is that we should shoot for at least two-thirds, cost recovery.  That said, I’m willing to accept this starting schedule because we’ve gotta start somewhere, so we need to start here.”

Lilliquist: “In the future I think we need to move towards higher cost recovery, if at all possible.  I don’t know what’s possible and I none of us do at this point.  That’s my personal take.”

Lehman: “Yeah, I would agree with that.  I think that my ultimate goal is 100% cost recovery.  How we get there though is the real question.  So, maybe this is a good place to start.”

Weiss: “The way I look at the lake, I don’t know if it’s our concern.  Recreational activities on the lake, if it’s in conflict with our primary concern of water quality, recreational boating doesn’t have to happen on our water supply.”

Weiss:  “When you guys go out there and find out where the impacted areas are, they’re at boat launches.  So what are we doing?  We have a heavy-duty dilemma here.  It’s either we don’t have boats on the lake, or we do.  And if we do, whether it’s going to be resident boats only, which I would support, I think that that’s fine.”

Fleetwood: “But Jack you acknowledge that we have to try to find that sweet spot.  I guess what I’m getting at is, you’re sort of suggesting that simply raising the cost this year, wouldn’t necessarily do the trick.  So, I don’t know why you would not, just based on your own reasoning, support this.”

Weiss:  “I don’t feel that we should be asking the general rate payer to go and subsidize a recreational activity like this.”

Fleetwood: “But if we raise it to a level and if it does have the effect that you think it might have, of causing people to simply not use it, then we’re not going to recover it, even if we raise the fees for full cost recovery.  Under that scenario, carried out to its logical conclusion, we might have to charge hundreds of dollars per person.  If you’re just going to do it that way, I guess what I’m saying, it looks like it’s going to require general funds subsidy any way you cut –it.”

Mayor Linville: “Thank you.  I find this a very good discussion.”

Mayor Linville: “The goal is to have a lake-wide program in place.  It will never do us any good if Bellingham and Bloedel Donovan launch is the only part of the overall protection plan.  So, one of the reasons we are setting the fees the way we are, is that we’ll have a better chance to get the County to participate, and then together we can look to see what the full fees are.  Because I think that the County will be in the same position that we are.  They would like to see a program, if we’re allowing recreation on the lake; they’d like to see a program that will pay for itself.  But, we can’t tell them exactly what the number is.  So I guess what I’m trying to separate out when we get to full recovery, how we are trying to strategize for a protection plan and the fact that we will be giving you the program that we say we give you, regardless of what the fees say, for this year.”

Mayor Linville: “Did I say anything inaccurate here?”

Mayor Linville:  “So, you’re not going to have to worry if we don’t raise the fees that we’re not going to have a lesser program.  That’s not going to happen.”

Lilliquist: “I think you understand that we want to move towards full cost recovery.”

Hutchings:  “I think that’s consistent with what the Administration envisions as well.  Thank you.  I do appreciate that everybody really understands and is sensitive to the nuisances of setting these rates with so little information.

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