Marine Sanctuary Standards
Environmentalists support daylighting Padden Creek to help the fish. Several million dollars are easily assembled for a project widely touted as a desirable salmon enhancement project. It’s more than enough to pay off the Hundred Acre Woods, but for that we will instead tax a low-to-moderate income neighborhood. Ironically, the gains achieved by taxing the poor - preserving lands that produce needed clear fresh water and tiny shrimp – may be substantially reversed by how the well-funded fisheries enhancement helps the well-to-do.
State Route 11 passes over a tunnel that prevents fish passage. Some get through, but most stay in the creek's lower reach. The tunnel is old and collapsing. For engineers, it's a storm drain that needs to be replaced before a catastrophic failure wrecks the road, hurts someone and floods the neighborhood. It’s the same with the city. It's not just for the fish. “The creek improvement also will reduce flood risk,” city officials said.
The tunnel does cause flooding. Built in 1892, growth in Happy Valley, parts of Samish and South Hills, areas around Lake Padden, and a massive university expansion have overburdened the once adequate facility. Consequently, a FEMA flood plain is mapped over a good part of the valley floor. Over-capacity flows from all this development have caused the tunnel’s structural demise. The old brick and mortar conduit was designed to be compressed by soils and to operate in open drainage. Full flooding reverses the load, pushing the structure apart and accelerating its deterioration. City of Bellingham Building Services 'permitted' the destruction. The permits benefited individuals and organizations, but the public will pay to fix it.
Upstream, other ardent environmentalists are focused on the water quality of Lake Padden. Tests show that it's not too bad now, but “on the edge of being a problem lake.” Daylighting may well push it over the edge. The tunnel and its flood plain are the last constraints on development for remaining portions of the Padden basin. Once resolved, nothing is likely to prevent fancy “toolkit” density tricks political patrons truly appreciate.
If phosphorus in Lake Padden is close to the limit now, it is going to go over. Plan on it. Oil from newly built roads will out-compete coconut butter in the oil slick contests of Lake Padden's future. Peak drainage volumes will increase along with development, and water quality will degrade. Pollutants will harm the lake and raging, polluted, peak torrents aren’t going to help the salmon downstream, either. So is this really for the fish?
But of course an open creek is better than a tunnel collapsing under a state highway. Of course it is worth eliminating or minimizing the flood plain. That's been a pain for a long time. O.K., at least the new parks district shows we are willing to put our money where are mouths are. Sure, the creek will work better most of the time, at least for a while.
But I suspect the fish angle is somewhat fishier than advertised. I’d feel better about the whole thing if the collapsing tunnel that threatens highway disaster, upstream development, and university expansion had actually been part of the equation. It might have switched around some of the funding. I'd feel better if there were any chance that the fish will be priority beneficiaries of this project as the area grows.
This project will work for the fish only if it is designed and operated for fish. If it is designed as a better storm drain for the university, and encourages intensified upstream development, outcomes for the fish are doubtful. If we are designing for the fish, shouldn’t we have a watershed integrity plan? Wouldn’t we establish not-to-exceed thresholds for phosphorus in Lake Padden, downstream velocities that don’t scour the channel or building styles that don’t pollute? Some believe climate changes here means larger, wetter storms. How are we planning for that?
I have some bad news. We need to start adopting and adhering to principles of watershed integrity. That means understanding the limits and staying below them. It means doing nothing until we can enunciate and implement better and more watershed-compliant practices.
People for Lake Padden recently observed that, “Lake Padden has problems that seem similar to those afflicting much larger Lake Whatcom.” No surprise. We don’t have a watershed integrity plan for Lake Whatcom, either. The problems are the same in every tributary of every stream, creek, river and lake. They afflict the nearshore habitat of the Salish Sea, and create the growing dead zones that are even worse. They are the same problems that took down Lake Washington, Lake Geneva and many others, the same problems that nearly took down Chesapeake Bay, over four times the size of Puget Sound, the same problems that caused Lake Erie to fail, ten times the size of Puget Sound, almost half again the entire Salish Sea.
I have more bad news. It can happen here and we better get busy. If we want to live amidst all this water in good health, we better all plan on upgrading to marine sanctuary standards to keep the water healthy, too. To keep the Salish Sea healthy we need to bring health back to its tributaries, and none too soon. Our fisheries are already a shambles. Three permits the Department of Ecology wrote at Cherry Point destroyed over half the herring production of Puget Sound. That demonstrates the disastrous disconnect between environmental regulation and environmental protection. We must fix that. The graffitti is all over the wall. It is a matter of life or death. We are about 65% water, 20% protein and 12% lipids.
It’s time we started working for, not against, a super-supermajority of the human body. That should mean demanding the clean water, wild fish and omega oils that principally sustained human populations here over the last many millennia. It should mean an end to continuing to 'permit' pollution that profits a few at public expense.
I sure wish that was what democracy looked like.
- Ralph Schwartz' Herald article on the tunnel (while it lasts)
- John Stark's Herald article on Lake Padden (while it lasts)