Marine Sanctuary Standards

By Tip JohnsonOn Mar 02, 2013

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.

Related Links

About Tip Johnson

Writers • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms on the Bellingham City Council and has worked on many community boards and committees. He travelled with the Federal Transit Administration and Department of Commerce on mass transit trade missions in SE Asia and Africa before settling down to focus on keeping public interests at the fore of local government and the course of growth and development.

Comments by Readers

Delaine Clizbe

Mar 07, 2013

I always get a bit confused when people continue to argue points that are invalid.  While I agree with you that Padden Creek is worth saving, some of your points are problematic.

I listened to the presentation that the People for Lake Padden made at the County Council.  I very clearly heard that their testing did not show a change since the 1970’s for phosphorus.  In addition, they created a model to “predict” that the lake is polluted but the lake is not polluted so their model is false.  And, they used a hugely higher amount of phosphorous coming off of housing than is used for Lake Whatcom. 

So what their study really showed is that the building that has been done in the Lake Padden watershed has been done well and has not had an adverse effect on the lake.  But now that the folks who conducted the study, who happen to already own houses in the watershed, have their bit of heaven, they don’t want others to have the same.  Seems to happen a lot.

Now.  What does concern me is that the People for Lake Padden did not include any kind of evaluation into what effect “recreation” has on the lake.  Lake Padden is likely the busiest park we have in the area with hundreds of people visiting every day.  This can not be good for the lake water.  They did highlight the concern with dog feces, which is easily fixed.  But what about everything else?

The trails around the lake are very well maintained even for the use they get.  However, there is run off that comes from these trails that gets in the lake.  Of more concern to me is the “horse trails” up above the lake.  These trails have not been maintained for years and are an atrocious mess.  Here is a picture:

While some of the trails are not in areas that drain into the watershed, this trail is directly above the swamp that goes into the creek by the dog park. 

What concerns me is that it seems that recreation always gets a pass.  We are about to put another huge park on Lake Whatcom.  I just think it is ridiculous to keep arguing for no development but then have all our recreation in watersheds. 

Also of concern to me is the blocking of the outlet on Lake Padden.  I’m not sure what salmon come up the creek but surely if they make it through the tunnel they are not going to make it over that steel barricade.  I’m not sure why Lake Padden is not allowed to maintain a natural level.  Surely a lake that is allowed to “flush” naturally is much healthier.  Maybe when they rebuild the “storm drainage” the lake will be allowed to return to its natural level and the salmon who may want to enter the lake are allowed to do so.



Alex McLean

Mar 12, 2013

Happy Valley is a floodplain.

It is also a ghetto—the place where the crappiest and highest density projects get rubber-stamped.

Too bad we shot our wad protecting the wealthiest and least dense neighborhood in town from ever seeing development by taxing ourselves to buy them a forested development firewall. As you noted, Happy Valley could really use that sort of open space to DIRECTLY benefit salmon and, yes, to mitigate against the march of apartments that trundles down 32nd St.

Instead, Happy Valley may be the only neighborhood in Bellingham that actually “loses” public open space during the course of this Greenways III levy: The public garden tracts, directly abutting a massive stormwater detention dam and a very active wetland, apparently are private property and, after some prodding, the maps the City publishes will correct the error of showing otherwise.

If we are going to claim fishy business on the part of developers or planners, we might as well account for our own complicity in the mess and our lack of interest in protecting this neighborhood so that we could, instead, protect Chuckanut Ridge and its privileged mansions by the sea-side.

You wrote, “at least the new parks district shows we are willing to put our money where are mouths are.”

I see it differently, however, since that Municipal Park District campaign only proved that college students in this neighborhood will vote for anything that has the word “park” or “marijuana” emblazoned on the ballot. The campaign relied on that bit of social science, and the softening effect of spreading the financial pain to the densest neighborhood in town, which is why they chose to include Happy Valley—a mere three miles from the nearest MPD tree—within its taxing boundaries. The resounding 51-percent victory dance the MPD is now doing comes at the expense of this neighborhood, our open space needs, our dollars, and our salmon stream. 

I think a real survey of residents in Happy Valley (and I mean REAL residents, not students or landlords who happen to visit the place for a year or two) would reflect that the people who live in this floodplain would have been far, far more supportive of a campaign that matters here, in this place we live, that could address the issues you note so well in your article.

Facebook Google LinkedIn Print Reddit Twitter