Drinking Water in Bellingham and much of Whatcom County

by: Posted on: March 15, 2011

An introduction to Lake Whatcom

By April J. Markiewicz, Associate Director/Toxicologist II, Institute of Environmental

Toxicology at Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University


Lake Whatcom is a large (10 square mile) deepwater lake nestled in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. Since the early 1900s it has served as the primary drinking water source for Washington’s Whatcom County. The lake currently provides water to more than 96,000 residents of the city of Bellingham and half of the county. Its size and scenic location has also made it the recreational destination for both residents and tourists, and home to more than 6,800 households in its watershed. Unfortunately, like so many other lakes around the county, its appeal has led to its impairment over the years.


The culprit of the lake’s deterioration is phosphorus. Phosphorus is a chemical nutrient that occurs naturally in soils and is used in man-made fertilizers, primarily because of its potential to generate 500 times its mass in biological growth (Wetzel, 1975). It, therefore, takes only a small amount to create lush lawns, thriving gardens, and plump fruits and vegetables. Just as easily, it will convert clean, clear lakes and streams to algae infested green soup. Logging, land clearing, and homebuilding, as well as recreational activities, operating vehicles, and fertilizing lawns in the watershed all introduce phosphorus into the lake via soil particles and stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces.


As a result, Lake Whatcom has experienced progressively larger and more persistent algal blooms in the last ten years. Phosphorus is the limiting nutrient in plant and algal growth, which is why environments inundated with the chemical rapidly become so vegetated. Thus, the lake’s water has turned murkier as green algae, as well as nuisance species like bluegreen algae have flourished. To meet state and federal drinking-water standards, the county must administer even more chemicals to clean the water for its use. Even after treatment, however, the algae create odor and taste problems, and enable the formation of harmful disinfection byproducts that persist in the treated tap water.


Bluegreen algae are a nuisance because their mucus coatings cause them to stick together and form large mats in the lake. These mats clog water treatment filters and wash up on shore in the summer, fouling Lake Whatcom’s beaches and swimming areas. According to Matthews et al. (2010) these algae and certain diatoms caused the city of Bellingham’s water treatment filters to clog very rapidly in 2009, resulting in the first ever mandatory restriction on water use throughout the community. In 2010 this happened again and unfortunately this pattern will only get worse if the blooms and their causes are allowed to persist.


When all this algae dies during the summer and fall, its decaying organic matter serves as a food source for bacteria. As the bacteria feed and increase in number, they consume oxygen dissolved in the water. This it why high phosphorous levels result in low oxygen concentrations in the water during the summer and fall. Low oxygen levels not only harm aquatic organisms and fish (who need the oxygen to breath), but also cause the water to become acidic. Acidity affects the chemistry and water quality of the lake because acidic water dissolves contaminants in sediment much more readily than neutral water. These contaminants are then reintroduced back into the water, where they become available for uptake by aquatic organisms and fish in the lake, affecting both their health and ours when we eat them. In 2001 the Washington Department of Health issued a health advisory against the consumption of mercury-contaminated smallmouth bass and yellow perch in the lake.


In 1998 Lake Whatcom was listed as an “impaired water body” for phosphorus and dissolved oxygen under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. Any waters listed under this section are required by state and federal law to be cleaned to meet state water quality standards by the “person or persons responsible”. Since we, as a community, allowed the lake to become polluted, we are charged with cleaning and restoring it, regardless of whether or not we continue to use it as a source of drinking water.


Thirteen years have elapsed since then and the water quality has further deteriorated at an accelerated rate, as evidenced by the monitoring studies conducted by Matthews et al. (2010). Those results are not surprising given that ongoing development in the watershed was allowed to continue. As of 2009 there were 6,800 households in the watershed with the potential for 1,945 more to be built (Rexroat pers. comm., 2009). Since state law (RCW 90.48.080) prohibits “any person… to cause pollution of state waters,” any future development will constitute breaking that law. Moreover, any contribution of phosphorus, no matter how small, will continue to make every effort to clean the lake more expensive.


A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) analysis for phosphorus in Lake Whatcom is being finalized (Pickett and Hood, 2008). It mandates that phosphorus loadings need to be reduced by 18 to 40 percent (to pre-1988 levels). Since there is a direct relationship between impervious surfaces in developed areas to phosphorus levels in stormwater runoff, the necessary reduction in phosphorus loadings equates to reducing the amount of developed acres in the watershed by 88.6%. Measures already taken by the city and county including stormwater treatment vaults, a ban on phosphate containing herbicides, and rain gardens, to name a few are not enough.


The major challenges facing our community now is preventing any further development in the watershed, as well as working with current watershed residents to eventually purchase and remove the development that is already there. This is a long-term solution that requires all of us to be engaged. We are ultimately responsible for protecting and restoring our drinking water source. Our personal health and safety, as well as the long-term sustainability of our community are dependent on the next steps we take together to clean up and restore our drinking water source. We have to start now. We are literally out of time.




Matthews, R.A., M. Hilles, J. Vandersypen, R.J. Mitchell and G.B. Matthews. 2010. Lake Whatcom Monitoring Program Annual Report Water Year 2008/09. Institute for Watershed Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, 351p. Available online at http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~iws/ under Lake Studies – Lake Whatcom Online Reports.


Pickett, P. and S. Hood. 2008. Lake Whatcom Watershed Total Phosphorus and Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Loads Volume 1: Water Quality Study Findings. Publication No 08-03-024, November 2008. Washington Department of Ecology, Olympia, WA. 145 p. Available online at www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/0803024.html.


Rexroat, L. 2009. Watershed Buildout Potential. Spreadsheet provided to the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board by L. Rexroat, property acquisition specialist, City of Bellingham.


Wetzel, R.G. 1975. Limnology. W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, PA., pg 196, 217, 353. ISBN 0-7216-9240-0.

One Response to “Drinking Water in Bellingham and much of Whatcom County”

  • Unfortunately this directly affects me and my community at Western Washington University and a group called Students for Sustainable Water, who promote the drinking of Tap water in opposition to the consumption of bottled water. However if this resource continues to decline in viability, I fear eliminating bottled water, may not be an option. And beyond bottle water, the question is what if Lake Whatcom is no longer a viable option? Then what options are left to us?
    by: Christopher Youngon: Tuesday 15th of November 2011

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