Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wet and Wild Whatcom County

Summertime is game time. And so, as a summer brain-teaser, I’ve put together a Whatcom County Water Quality Quiz.  

That’s one wacky font, right?  It means that this is going to be fun!

What, you say that a test is not your idea of fun?  Aw, c’mon.  No need to worry about test anxiety! Whenever the answer isn’t entirely clear, I’ll build in some subliminal clues.

So let's play!

 1.  How many people in Whatcom County rely on the Sumas-Blaine aquifer for their drinking water?  (Hint:  it’s a lot.)

a.         27,000
b.         2,700
c.         Lake Whatcom
d.         Water comes from plastic bottles.

Admit it.  When you saw the term “drinking water,” most of you went straight to “Lake Whatcom.” 

Tsk, tsk, tsk.  Not everybody in Whatcom County is so fortunate as to have a protected watershed that provides for clean and delicious water without filtering.  Oh, wait, I’m thinking of New York City,  which has decided that “filtration and disinfection are insufficient without preemptive watershed protections.”  

Namby-pambies.  No wonder nobody wants to live in New York City, with its high rise housing, public transportation, and delicious drinking water.  Our major drinking water source, Lake Whatcom, has been on the state’s list of polluted waters for 14 years.   We have 6,839 houses in our watershed and the potential for almost 2,000 more.  

Don’t know about you, but I’m still alive!  The lake still looks good to me!  And as we all know, the best way to gauge threats is by whether or not you can see them

But I digress. The Sumas-Blaine aquifer is the sole readily available source of drinking water (other than plastic bottles) for around 27,000 people.  Some have wells, some get their water from community water systems.   

Lake Whatcom provides the drinking water for more than 95,000 people, so the aquifer isn’t as big a source.  But it’s pretty big – it provides water for between 10 and 15% of Whatcom County’s 200,000-or-so people.

Here’s the aquifer:

2.       What percentage of tested wells that rely on the Sumas-Blaine aquifer for drinking water have nitrate levels that don’t meet state drinking water standards?

(a)        Drinking water standards are for sissies.
(b)        Agenda 21 created drinking water standards because the United Nations wants to control American wells.
(c)        Almost a third. 
(d)       None, because we knew that this was a big problem in the late 1990s, so of course it’s been addressed over the past fifteen years.

The correct answer, of course, is (b).  You want proof?  Here are just two of the goals of the sinister, socialist Agenda 21

·         “Development of agricultural practices that do not degrade groundwaters;” and
·         “Sanitary disposal of excreta and sewage, using appropriate systems to treat waste waters in urban and rural areas”.

Are you outraged?  No, I mean:  how outraged are you?  The very essence of freedom is the right to drink excrement.  The United Nations wants to take away our liberty!

Now, some of you may be thinking “who wants to drink poo?”  Skeptics, just ask yourselves this:

Did the Founding Fathers have drinking water treatment?  Don’t think so!

Oh, and (c) is right, too.  Twenty-nine percent of tested wells did not meet state standards for nitrate.  One private domestic well had seven times the nitrate concentration allowed by state standards.

As for (d) – Scroll down to “Government Response to Declining Water Quality is Too Little, Too Late” by Dr. Frank James.  It was published in Whatcom Watch in 1998.   

3.       Is Whatcom County using this information in its rural planning, in order to divert residential development away from areas where well water is likely to violate health standards?

a.         No.
b.         Of course not.
c.         Drinking water standards are for sissies.
d.         Property rights.

These are all good answers.  But anyone who has played the game in Whatcom County knows that “Property Rights” isn’t just the right answer.  It’s the only answer. 

4.       What county in Washington has the most polluted shellfish growing area?

(a)        Wasn’t Whatcom County the winner last year?
(b)        Drayton Harbor might have something to do with this.
(c)        I think that it’s some county that isn’t Whatcom County.
(d)       All of the above.

(Here’s your subliminal clue:  The first three answers don’t contradict each other. . ..) 

You guessed (d)?  You get an A++++!

Drayton Harbor was the most polluted shellfish growing area in Washington in 2010, but it only came in second in 2011.  We’re Number Two! 

Speaking of Number Two (how’s that for a subliminal clue?):

5.       What do the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer and Drayton Harbor have in common?

(a) It’s all the Canadians’ fault.
(b) Poop.
(c) They both look OK, so there’s no problem.
(d) They’d both be good names for a rock band.

There’s only one right answer to this one. 

“Sumas-Blaine Aquifer” would be the worst name ever for a rock band, so (d) goes away immediately.

And we know that (c) can’t be right, because you can’t see the aquifer.  That’s part of the problem – out of sight, out of mind.

How about (a)?  Well, that’s a bit of a trick answer.  The key is the word “all.” 

Canada is the source of some of the pollution in the Sumas-Blaine aquifer, which is known as the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer when we take away the dividing line at the 49th parallel.  The aquifer flows in our direction from Canada.  On the Canadian side, there are big poultry and raspberry operations that contribute to the nitrate problem. 

There used to be an “International Task Force” to bring government officials together to work on solutions, but in times of shrinking budgets, that’s not a high priority.  Folks from both sides of the border still get together to talk about issues from time to time.  

As for Drayton Harbor –well, if your views on science are based on the comments section in the Bellingham Herald, you would “know” that untreated sewage from Victoria causes the pollution problems in Drayton Harbor. 

Canada sends us many things – cross-border shoppers, oil from the tar sands, comedians – but the truth is that we manufacture plenty of our own fecal matter right here on this side of the border.  And there are plenty of Made in the U.S.A. delivery systems that deposit our home-grown fecal matter into the Harbor.  Check out the Drayton Harbor Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load report, below, if you have any doubts. 

So the answer is (b).  Poop. 


Sumas-Blaine Aquifer Nitrate Contamination Summary, Washington State Dept. of Ecology, June 2012 (see pages 9 and 19-20).

Drayton Harbor Watershed Fecal Coliform Total Maximum Daily Load: Phase 1, Washington State Dept. of Ecology, March 2008, p.22 

6.       Only two state legislative districts in Washington can boast that their elected officials – all three of them (two State Representatives and one State Senator) – received scores of ZERO on Washington Conservation Voters’ 2011-2012 legislative scorecard.  One of these districts is the 39th – mostly eastern Skagit and Snohomish counties.  What county was in the other legislative district with a ZERO score?

a.         Whatcom County (42nd District)
b.         Ferry County (7th District)
c.         Skamania County (15th District)
d.         Garfield County (9th District)

Congratulations to Whatcom County!  42nd District Representatives Vincent Buys and Jason Overstreet joined Senator Doug Ericksen to vote against the environment every time, achieving a score of zero!    Take that, Ferry, Skamania, Garfield, and all you other counties in conservative areas of the state!  The 42nd has taken over the basement!

That’s a lot of exclamation points.  For an achievement of this magnitude, though, I’m not sure that it’s enough exclamation points.


7.       Wait, what does Question 6 have to do with water quality?

 (a)       Nitrates have been proven to cause people to vote for anti-environmental legislators. 
(b)        Absolutely nothing.  Government needs to stay away from our drinking water.  There’s a market solution for everything.  Anyone who wants fresh, clean, delicious water that doesn’t come out of a bottle can always vote with their feet.  If you’re the kind of person who likes that sort of thing, go ahead!  Go live in New York City!  We don’t need your type around here.
(c)        The point is that, if we want to get Whatcom County back to its place as the most-polluted shellfish growing area, and keep its position as the County with the worst nitrate pollution problem, we have to keep electing the guys who are on the job.
(d)       As the old saying goes, “Voters get the water quality that they deserve.” There’s a real choice in this November’s 42nd District election for the two state representative positions.

The theory set forth in (a) hasn’t been proven, although it’s an interesting hypothesis.

The problem with (b) is that, if everybody fouls their own nest and moves to New York City, the continent will tip over. 

So I guess it comes down to (c) or (d).  If the voters of the 42nd choose (c), maybe we’d better start looking seriously into (a).

Now that you've finished the quiz, reward yourself with a refreshing summer drink.  Cheers!


  1. Great ironic blog. Makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Of course, most of the people who really need to read this, won't.

  2. Question 1:

    The total population of the metropolitan areas of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver B.C. is just under 6 million. The majority of these citizens receive their water from mountain lakes and reservoirs. What type of activity is allowed within the boundaries of these municipal reservoirs ?

    a. logging
    b. home construction
    c. jet skiing
    d. seaplane mooring
    e. none of the above

    The correct answer is (e) although all three cities permitted some logging in the last century. Different time, different rules. Today, and particularly since 9/11, restrictions on access and activity in these reservoirs has been tightened. And the water quality in all three is excellent.

    Contrast this to Bellingham, where all of the previously mentioned activities continue. Having lived in both Portland and Vancouver B.C., I can tell you that the quality of municipal water in Bellingham does not even come close to our neighbors to the north and south.

    Question 2: The Whatcom County community of Point Roberts receives it's water from a mountain reservoir in North Vancouver.

    The quality of Point Roberts water is:

    a. excellent
    b. so-so
    c. better than it was when Point Roberts relied on local wells for water
    d. frequently exceeds Federal standards for a cancer-causing agent
    e. three of the above

    OK, this is kind of a trick question. The answer is (e).

    Before 1989, Point Roberts drew it's water from local wells and stored it in a large steel tank.
    Old-timers have told me that it tasted god-awful and turned your bathtub orange.

    So after Point Roberts inked their 50 year contract to buy Canadian water, the delivered product was an improvement.

    However, Point Roberts is at the end of a water pipe that originates in North Vancouver. By the time the water gets down here, it is pretty stale. Particularly in the summer.

    Since no one likes the prospect of cryptosporidium, giardia or beaver fever ruining their summer vacation, the Canadian water is given a healthy shot of Chlorine before it is dispensed to Point Roberts users.

    The problem is that Chlorine produces halocetic acids and trihalomethanes when added to water. Particularly if the water is turbid or has accumulated a high level of dissolved solids on it's trip from Vancouver to Point Roberts.

    The Water Quality Report from the Point Roberts Water District states:

    "Some people who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level) over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous system and may have increased risk of getting cancer".

    The bad news is that the MCL for Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) in Point Roberts water has been exceeded every year except 2011.

    The good news is that in 2011, the Greater Vancouver Water District installed UV treatment that improved water quality to all water users, including those in Point Roberts. So Chlorine use is down and TTHM does not seem to be a problem any more.

    However, what about those years from 1989 to 2011? That would seem to raise concern about the "over many years" standard that was the subject of the official Water District warning....

    The fact is that anyone who draws Point Roberts water from their tap is best advised to exercise some common sense and filter it prior to drinking. Or just buy bottled water.

    Nitrates have never been a problem up here; another advantage of drawing water from a protected reservoir. I was not aware of the problems in the Sumas-Blaine acquifer. 29% of the wells failing the standards for Nitrates is unsettling. Nitrates in drinking water at levels above 10 ppm are a health risk for infants of less than six months of age, according to the EPA.

    But if the residents of the North County are concerned, they can always move to Point Roberts. Closer than New York City.

    And, to quote one of our past Water Commissioners, "You can always buy a Brita Filter".

    Salud !

  3. Jean, you rock!

  4. Interesting post, John!

    Households with nitrates in their drinking water can install a reverse osmosis system (Brita filters don't claim to do the trick). While the systems themselves aren't terribly expensive (a few hundred to a few thousand dollars), they apparently need a lot of maintenance (replacement filters and membranes that cost several hundreds of dollars each), which households tend not to do. So most public health web sites around the country advise homeowners with nitrates in their water to drink bottled water.

    As Dr. James pointed out back in 1998, nitrates may be an indicator that other substances are in the water. The quiz includes a link to a PUD 1-prepared study, which tries to come up with solutions for small community systems with high nitrate levels in their water. Some of them also had high levels of ethylene dibromide (EDB), which was used as a soil fumigant. EPA banned it in 1984. Nonetheless, it was still found in County drinking water sources in the 1990s and maybe the 2000s (I'm not sure from the report, which was published in 2010 but relied on previous analyses).

    The choices that we make can last a long, long time, whether we're talking about Lake Whatcom or groundwater. As Ecology's "Sumas-Blaine Aquifer Nitrate Contamination Study" (June 2012) states, "Because groundwater moves slowly, it may take years, if not decades, of significantly reduced nitrate input to groundwater to improve water quality in the SBA." (p. 28)

    What about drilling below the Sumas-Blaine Aqufer? "Low quality and quantity of occasional water-bearing zones in the underlying Everson-Vashon Semiconfining Layer prevent this deeper unit from providing significant usable water." (p. 17)

    All in all, I'm glad to be drinking Lake Whatcom water, even if it sometimes has an algae aftertaste. I hope that's the worst problem that will be faced by everybody's children and grandchildren.

  5. No wonder the 'conservative' (so-called as they're agin conserving water quality, rural lands etc) County Council kicked you off the Planning Commission a couple of years ago, Jean. Knowledge+humor+persistence = SCARY for the property-rights uber alles crowd.

  6. If you wonder why no attention is being paid to water issues, just look at who represents us in the 42nd District.
    Erickson, Overstreet and Buys don't understand much about what's good for us collectively, only those whose votes can be bought by silly, shortsighted 'individual property rights arguments'.
    Who can blame them for not being courageous enough to actually support a good environment?
    Talk about a race to the bottom.

  7. Now that you're all exercised about water quality, and, peripherally, about Lake
    Whatcom, I've found some videos I think you should see, offered without comment:

    Can all this turbid water be good for water quality in Lake Whatcom?
    Was the water supplied from the diversion always this turbid?
    Has the phosphorus contribution from the diversion, acknowledged by DOE to be more than 600 pounds per year, resulted in the degradation water quality in Lake Whatcom?
    I encourage you to view all the video clips.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Lots of people write about Lake Whatcom. Fewer people know about the other water quality problems in the County. For a few brief moments, I wanted to focus on some other water quality issues -- but sure, we can always talk about Lake Whatcom.

      Talk, talk, talk. It would be nice if the County actually took action -- by adopting the stormwater regs it promised Ecology a couple of years ago. But I guess that isn't going to happen any time soon.

      I know that the Diversion is a hobbyhorse of yours, and I think that Ecology has responded to your claims and questions more than once. As you know, there are many sources of phosphorus. The Lake Whatcom Stormwater Plan (last page) illustrates --- literally -- the sources.

      I was kidding when I said that the best way to gauge a hazard is by whether you can see it or not. Really, that's one reason that we people (including We the People) are so bad at evaluating risk. We humans aren't very good at addressing threats that aren't right in front of our eyes.

      According to the latest Lake Whatcom Monitoring Report, the diversion contributed about 7% of the water input to Lake Whatcom last year and runoff contributed about 75%. I don't know if anybody has ever made a video of water running off a lawn, but it probably wouldn't be very dramatic. (Well, maybe if it the yard were full of pet poop and the video could catch all the poop rolling into the lake. In slow motion. That might be dramatic.) Water running off the roads isn't very dramatic to watch. But there's where we need to be "looking."

      If you want to keep up the conversation, do use your real name.

  8. Pardon me: I didn't notice that blogspot had grabbed my ancient alter ego. You knew who I was anyway, as does everybody.

  9. Dave, Blogspot didn't grab anything. I've just familiar with your M.O. from listening to too many Planning Commission meetings and reading Herald comments. Hours of my life that I'll never get back.

    And now your last sentence has made the chorus of "Fame" run through my head:

    Remeber my name

    I'm gonna live forever
    I'm gonna learn how to fly

    I feel it coming together
    People will see me and cry

    I'm gonna make it to heaven
    Light up the sky like a flame

    I'm gonna live forever
    Baby remember my name

    Help! Get this song out of my head!

  10. Quite a few of my friends know how this thread really went...

  11. Tell your friends that they don't have to lurk. You and your friends are welcome to engage in discussion, using your own names. As I requested,

  12. Jean,
    "If you want to keep up the conversation, do use your real name."

    I see that you used that subterfuge to remove several of my posts.

    So much for lively conversation.
    You could restore them, and restore my faith in your commitment to lively discourse.


  13. "Tell your friends that they don't have to lurk. You and your friends are welcome to engage in discussion, using your own names. As I requested,"

    Many who lurk find themselves unwilling to post, because of your attitude and your prediliction to remove comments critical of your arguments.

    Why would you do that? Why should anyone visit, given the way you treat those who are critical?

  14. Dave, I had asked you to post using your real name. You didn't. You and your friends have a venue for posting anonymously: the Herald web site.

    Post your comments again if you want -- under your name. I would ask you, though, to think through your post and combine your comments into a single post.

    And please remember, this is a blog that we run voluntarily. I'm not remotely concerned about comments that disagree with me, because if my statements aren't well supported, I'm happy to change them. I have no financial interest in these issues, no real stake in the outcome other than wanting to get out some information and viewpoints that aren't heard anywhere else.

    But I just don't have time for unpleasantness. That's all.

  15. You're all welcome at use any name you want... I'm more used to being called names than worrying about what other people want to call themselves.

  16. A good recommendation. Thanks, Jack. Although I doubt that Dave and his friends would feel the need to use a nom de plume on your blog.

  17. As a last post, I would like to comment that I acknowledged my identity before Ms. Melious removed my comments.

    So much for open discourse.

  18. Dave, don't be a victim, just post your comments again! It's simple. If they're that important, and you stand by them, go for it. Otherwise, no whining.

  19. Hey Jack,

    Just followed up on your above suggestion and checked out your website; chronicling your travels to a Portland forest products confab in the 80's

    Interesting writing style--sort of Environmental Gonzo. Bill Bryson meets Hunter S. Thompson by way of Spiro T. Agnew...

    "Pop Enviros" ? Jack's green equivalent of the Nattering Nabobs of Negativism. Boffo. I'll bet that throwaway line gets you a lot of high-fives at the Grange.

    "Pop" Enviro that I am - (I'm a father of 5 concerned about the legacy we leave our children and grandchildren) I was still fascinated by your account of the Mother Earth types that attended these conferences in Portland.

    My, how things change.

    When I lived in Portland during the 70's decade, the city was a conservative, provincial city run by developers. Similar to Bellingham today, a liberal, progressive city run by developers. In the end, it's all about the money.

    Just curious...Did the subject of water quality in Portland's Bull Run watershed come up at your environmental get together ? Did you step forward 20 years ago and point out that, unlike Bull Run, development in the Lake Whatcom watershed, was allowed in your little corner of the world? Including housing?

    Because despite the pro-development sentiments of the Portland I once knew, I doubt that even the boldest developer would propose activity in the Bull Run watershed, the source of drinking water for the Portland Metropolitan area.

  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  22. The first anonymous post was just a link. The second anonymous post was a link and a comment. I didn't follow the links -- too risky, anonymouses, given what's lurking out there in cyberworld.

    If you want to discuss the content, providing information and using your name(s), you're welcome. But no more anonymous posts and links, please.

  23. Strange how your comment threads attract so many people who want to talk about anything but the subjects of your posts.

    The eventual solution to this nitrate pollution of the Sumas-Blaine aquifer will probably be the same one that was used in SE Iowa back in the '70's... Stop using well water.

    The 'solution' cost millions... they eventually piped lake water to every rural home. 6500 miles of pipe to serve 16,000 farms/rural homes.

    Let's just hope that those East County folks can find a lake, with usable water, somewhere nearby.

  24. Steve, that's just the problem. And it's certainly being kept on the downlow in Whatcom County in 2012.

    Those who can wade through long, dense reports should check out the innocuously-titled North Whatcom County Regional Source Feasibility Study,

    It's a study of approaches to the nitrate issue as it affects 12 community water systems. It doesn't address exempt wells.

    For these 12 systems, affecting 1,600 people (just a fraction of the folks affected in the area of Iowa that you mentioned), the report states:

    "In 2007 a North Whatcom County Nitrates Feasibility Study concluded that the most economically viable solution would be to construct transmission mains that allow individual water systems to receive service
    through inter-ties with the City of Lynden. However, Lynden and DOE have been unable to reach and agreement on the quantity of water that Lynden has available for distribution. . ."

    The "most feasible" solution would be to construct transmission mains from Lynden to the Sumas area. To serve 1,600 people. And that didn't work out.

    I don't think that anybody has any idea of what is going to be required to address this problem. The easier alternative, of course, is not to address it. From what I can see, that's the approach that is being taken. If I'm wrong, I surely would be grateful if somebody would correct me. That would be good news.