Photo by Cade Schmidt

Everyone drinks it, bathes with it and cooks with it. Even without realizing it, students use water. But how much do people really think about where their water comes from?

In Bellingham, drinking water comes from Lake Whatcom. It seems simple enough, but one group of students knows there are a myriad of complications with the body of water, including storm runoff and erosion of the land around the water, causing high-phosphorus levels in the community’s drinking water.

That’s why the Associated Students Environmental Center is encouraging Whatcom County to request that the State Board of Natural Resources reconveys state-owned lands back into county control, rather than be managed by a state entity. This is in an effort to give the county more control over the local water supply coming from Lake Whatcom, said Jason Austin, AS Environmental & Sustainability Program Associate Director . The center conveyed their encouragement of this action in a letter addressed to the Whatcom County Council last November.

“In a nutshell, a lower level of environmental impact would be allowed, and the community will have more control over local water issues as they develop,” Austin said.

He said the center is working with Conservation Northwest, an environmental interest group that seeks to protect wildlife and wild lands in the northwest, to bring local control of environmental issues back into the hands of the community.

“Having a state agency in control of local water concerns isn’t a good fit,” Austin said. “Having local control over them makes them more reachable to the community.”

According to the letter, the lake is threatened by high-phosphorus levels and algae growth. Landslides and erosion contribute to these problems, according to the letter.

“If we don’t act soon, Bellingham may have to find a new water source in the future,” said Robert Eckroth, intern at the AS Environmental Center. “Bellingham takes pride in being a green community, so I hope that we keep that reputation by preventing anymore land development around the lake.”

Eckroth said land development is banned near lakes in Seattle that are used for drinking water.

“The reconveance would set the land aside, putting more emphasis on the environmental potential of the area,” Austin said.
Other issues include high levels of phosphorus and increased algae growth.

“Phosphorus is such a problem for two reasons,” Eckroth said. “It depletes oxygen levels, which fish and other aquatic life need to live, and it feeds algae growth.”

Eckroth said algae growth clogs filters and requires water to be treated more than it already is.

“This problem is getting worse and will continue to get worse if more land will be zoned for development around Lake Whatcom,” he said. “It would be foolish to allow more development around a lake that Bellingham relies on as its source of drinking water.”
Eckroth said originally the phosphorous was thought to have been a result of the fertilizer that residents living in the Lake Whatcom watershed were using.

“But even since it has been banned, phosphorous has still been a problem,” he said. “The phosphorus problem turns out to be a natural process coming from decomposing organic matter that gets into our storm water drains that go into the lake.”