Thursday, July 24, 2014

A few DEM Images of the Nooksack

A bit of messing around with some DEM (digital elevation model) and came up with some visuals of the lower Nooksack River in northwest Washington. By shifting the elevations of the colors one can enhance features that would otherwise be hard to see.

The first image shows the complicated story of part of the Nooksack River and some late ice age drainage patterns. The dark green is lower elevation. The Nooksack flows towards the west into a broad valley formed by an older late ice age drainage. The low area on the north edge of the map is the Sumas Valley. A tongue of ice sat at this location and left the low area with its associated outwash plain to the southwest. The Nooksack flows into the area between these two low areas and for now flows west, but during big floods on the Nooksack water floods towards the Sumas.

Closer view of the Nooksack showing an elevated flood plain area on either side of the river (yellow-green) that has built up. Indeed, the low area north of the river floods deeply and takes a long time to drain.

During the late stages of the last glacial period lobes of ice blocked the flow of the Nooksack River and the river cut channels through the upland areas leaving behind coulee like features in the headwaters of what is now Ten Mile Creek in the center of the map.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

GEER Report on OSO Landslide is Out

The GEER report on the Oso slide has been released.

GEER stands for Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance. I believe this is the first landslide the program has looked at. They visit sites shortly after huge floods, tsunamis and earthquakes to gather evidence of the event before it weathers away. I utilized a GEER report for assessing scour potential from tsunami in a tsunami inundation area.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Whatcom Rural Element: Water Quality Struggles

I have periodically posted on Whatcom County's long and complex struggles with rural planning and the Growth Management Act - long and wonky and local issues that shape the landscape. Whatcom County is just one county, but being local I know the GMA planning here better than elsewhere.

Whatcom County lost on water quality and water quantity issues on appeals before the Growth Hearings Board last year.  The County has appealed the Boards rulings on water quality and quantity planning to the State Court of Appeals. There are hints that a settlement may be reached on water quality, but not on water quantity. This post discusses the water quality issue; quantity is saved for another day.

The Hearings Board summed up the case on the County's rural plan water quality component:

"The County policies and development regulations either do not contain specific measures to protect water quality, or are limited to critical areas, urban areas or watershed overlay areas, and do not apply throughout the rural area. Indeed, although the County’s Comprehensive Plan contains policy statements about controlling or reducing water pollution, the implementing regulations have not done so, thus making the Comprehensive Plan inconsistent with the development regulations."

The Board referenced a number of studies and reports on water quality that were referenced by the appellants as examples of water quality problems and the failure of the County protections. To be honest, I found the Board ruling muddled when it came to the science rationale for the ruling. If you are looking for water quality science brilliance, it will not be found in this ruling. In regards to legal framework, the Board is making a clear statement that the GMA planning needs to consider Clean Water Act protections by arguing that growth planning is a fundamental aspect of accomplishing clean water goals in a cost effective and fair manner. The legal aspect will either be up to the judgment of the Court of Appeals or will be settled ahead of time. My read on the legal aspects is that the Board and those that appealed the County plan are on good legal footing - muddled science and references aside.

Once I got past the science part, the Hearings Board ruling provides fairly clear direction on water quality issues that are fairly simple fixes. One has to do with septic rules and the other is associated with stormwater. 

Septic Rules

The board notes County Policy 2DD-2.C.2 is to minimize the adverse effects of discharges from on-site sewage systems on ground and surface waters. This policy is implemented through Whatcom County Code (WCC) 24.05 with the purpose of protecting public health by minimizing public exposure to sewage. The code allows private homeowners to inspect their own septic systems if they meet certain requirements. The County currently allows homeowners to inspect their own onsite septic tanks in some Rural Areas. The County requires professional inspections of onsite septic systems only in the Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor watersheds - Lake Whatcom is a drinking water source and Drayton Harbor is a shell fish growing area. Petitioners argue the self-inspection program (as shown in Exhibit R-128) reveals that of the few homeowners who self-inspect, only 7.8% reported failure…compared to the 40.4% of professional inspections which report failure. Petitioners point out the self-inspection program for septic tanks in the rural area does not have the same compliance rates as the County documents from professionally inspected tanks in the Lake Whatcom and Drayton Harbor watersheds. The Board found that the 2010 WRIA 1 State of the Watershed Report lists malfunctioning on-site septic systems as a potential cause of water quality failures in three of the County’s seven watershed areas. The Board finds other studies shown above document water quality contamination from faulty septic systems. The Board is led to conclude the current development regulation does not protect water quality in Whatcom County’s rural areas.

Pretty clear that the Board thinks the County needs to drop the voluntary system as it appears to not be working. The volunteer approach has been the pet scheme of Council Member Barbara Brenner, and based on experience a pet scheme she will greatly resist changing. 


The Board notes Policy to Preserve and protect unique and important water resources through development standards in WCC 20.71 Water Resource Protection Overlay District, adopted herein by reference. WCC 20.71.021, the water resource protection overlay district, only applies to a portion of the county’s rural area: Lake Whatcom, Lake Samish, and Lake Padden Watersheds.  The Board notes that "Policy 2DD-2.C.3 does create measures to limit development to protect water resources in these three lake areas. However, no measures exist to limit development to protect water resources in the remaining portions of the County’s Rural Area. Thus, the County does not have measures to satisfy the requirements in RCW 36.70A.070(5)(c)(iv)". 
In particular the Board noted that "Ecology’s stormwater manual only applies to urbanized areas and not to the remainder of the County’s Rural Area. The Board finds Policy 2DD-2.C.4, which adopts by reference more restrictive stormwater management regulations, does not apply to the County’s entire Rural Area and thus, the County’s Stormwater Manual does not provide measures to protect groundwater throughout the County’s Rural Area. In addition, references to Title 20 Zoning in Policy 2DD-2.C.4 inadequately address stormwater because, even though it restricts lot coverage to 20%, the definition of lot coverage is restricted to structures and combination of structures and does not include all impervious surfaces such as driveways, parking lots, or other covered areas which create stormwater runoff."

The adoption of the Ecology Stormwater Manual for Western Washington would be a rather simple fix that would be highly defensible and accomplishes rural development utilizing full dispersion techniques and other low impact approaches that protect water quality with the seal of approval of Ecology. The current County approach is confusing people.

Adopting the Ecology manual may also allow the County to avoid the constant demand by Futurewise for retaining trees. Nothing against tree retention, but I don't like crossing up tree retention purposes. Where tree retention is important for stormwater quality, they should be protected for that purpose via stormwater regulations. The Ecology manual gets to that issue. If tree retention is for habitat, it should be embedded in the habitat regulations.

Not Relevant 

I was concerned about some rationale in the Boards ruling. One particular the Board discussion that left me confused as to its purpose was a study done by the Washington State Department of Ecology regarding nitrate contamination in Sumas-Blaine Aquifer. The Board provided no direction on this matter not did the Board recognize the level of effort the county has put into nitrate problems.

"A 2012 Department of Ecology report on nitrate contamination for wells in the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer states 29% of wells in northwestern Whatcom County exceeded maximum nitrate contamination levels and 14% of wells had more than double the maximum allowed rate of contamination. Thirty-six percent (36%) of shallow wells (less than 40 feet in depth) exceed allowable nitrate contamination levels, while 20% of deeper wells also exceed the standard. Ecology’s report documents the percentage nitrate contribution from various sources and states the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer is especially vulnerable to contamination from overlying land uses. Ecology recommends seven steps the County could take to address aquifer nitrate contamination."

The nitrate issue is almost exclusively an issue of agricultural practices over the aquifer on both the U.S. and Canadian side of the border (Ecology publication is here). The seven steps were not addressed specifically to Whatcom County and many of the steps area the responsibility of other agencies and governments. The suggested steps that do fall within County jurisdiction have in fact been taken by the county. The County has regulations regarding manure applications, farm plans, and water testing as well as educational programs. There could be some debate regarding funding and enforcement.

Another area of discussion was specific to flashiness of stream flows on Bertrand Creek in north Whatcom County due to development. The implication of the discussion was that county development rules were not adequate to protect from flashy stream flows on Bertrand Creek. Not sure it is fair to blame the County about the development impacts given that the development has been mostly been in Canada within the headwaters of the stream with most of the Whatcom County portion of the drainage in agricultural zoning.

The County is faced with some difficult challenges in the Bertrand watershed due to over use of groundwater and stream flows, but that is a whole other story.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Very Brief Notes on Pateros

NASA image of Washington State wildfires

The passage of thunderstorms across the east slopes of the Cascade Range ignited numerous wildfires. Forest fires on the east slope of the Cascades are a common event. In rural residential areas within the dry forests home loss is also not uncommon. I am fairly cognizant of fire hazard areas, but have to admit a bit of surprise at the damage that directly hit Pateros, a town on the Columbia River outside the forest zone and with orchards on the hillsides above.

I marked up a couple of burned areas on Google earth via images from the Wenatchee World.
As can be seen the slopes above Pateros are sparsely vegetated and rocky. Other areas outside of Pateros where homes were lost are the more classic forest and homes settings. This fire was a nasty, hot and fast moving blaze that must have had just the right mix of combustible material to throw embers over streets and roads and even houses.   

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mount Rainier Magma Plume

McGary and others (2014) ( used electric and seismic sensors to produce an image of the subduction slab and magma plume associated with Mount Rainier.
Colors are resistivity which reflects the plume nicely as well as the cold blue ocean crust subduction slab. The red dots are recorded seismic events
The Nature article requires subscription, but Utah State has a news release that provides some good information about the investigation:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Pit to Pier and the Navy and DNR Aquatic Lease

The Pit to Pier project took a bit of a blow last week when the Washington State Department of Natural Resources completed an agreement with the United States Navy regarding aquatic leases within Hood Canal (announcement here).

The Pit to Pier is a scheme to build a conveyor belt from a mining area to a ship loading facility on the shore of Hood Canal. The gravel deposits at the mine are a huge deposit of glacial outwash sands and gravels. In addition, there is a large rock quarry not far to the north that potentially could use the facility as well. I posted a few posts regarding this scheme a while back as the location of the proposed conveyor and pier are located in an area of known deep-seated large rotational landslides (sb5805-pit-to-pier-gravel-and-landslidesa-bit-more-on-pit-to-piergravel-pits-and-piers).

The active gravel mines and rock quarry currently are using truck transport mostly across Hood Canal Bridge to market facilities to the east. The Mats Mats Quarry is nearly done with mining but is slated to receive waste soils from Seattle's tunnel project to back fill the pit so the pier at that location is still in use. However, that pier is only for barge traffic and trucking to that site would be not feasible under current economics of aggregate mining. The proposed Pit to Pier scheme included ocean going ships to ship to distant urban centers including international sites.

The U.S. Navy was motivated to enter into the long term lease agreement with the DNR as the Navy is not keen on having large ship traffic within areas that they operate nuclear submarines and do submarine torpedo training and who knows what else. What is a bit surprising is that a long-term lease agreement was not one the first items the Pit to Pier project tried to complete.

Given the size of the deposit and gravel demand at urban centers, not only locally but nationally and internationally, the mining activity will likely continue and there may be other pier schemes. However, other sites that could serve these mines will be challenging to permit - particularly for the large ocean going ships that appear to be needed to make the project viable. A massive mine/pier project recently opened in British Columbia and there is another one in the works in BC. Hence, the investment opportunity may be risky given the competition and the challenge of permitting a long conveyor belt through rural and semi urban communities.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Whatcom County Council Course Correction on River Erosion Site

The Whatcom County Council opted not to fund a river erosion project after initially asking to have the project added to the River and Flood 2014 work plan. I have to admit the title of the Bellingham Herald story covering the project was clever

I previously did a summary of the erosion site (county-tax-dollars-to-protect-private-land). The Council had supported adding the project by a 4-2 vote, but process required an official amendment to the County 2014 work plan, and at that point two council members after some more thought decided this project was not such a great idea given all the other unfunded projects and its overall very low priority ranking. Hence, the scheme was voted down with 2 in favor and 5 opposed.

Ken Mann was strongly opposed and made the motion to pull the project. He has consistently stated his opposition to using tax dollars to protect private land. Barry Buchanan and Pete Kremen changed position and voted with Mr. Mann. Mr. Kremen articulated that he struggled with the scheme and cited that the advisory committee recommendation had been divided with a bare majority. Rud Browne opposed all along voted to remove the project as did Carl Weimer. Sam Crawford and Barbara Brenner voted against removing the project from the work plan.

Barbara Brenner, as is typical of her political style, argued with made up facts and no regard to the County funded study that indicated that the erosion by the river at this location was not a significant threat to the State Highway 9.

One issue that did come up is the cost share component to this project. The County would cover 70% of the cost and the local subzone would cover 30%. This aspect alone should have been a big red flag as typically the local subzone district would be the entity pushing a project as they have to cover 30% of the cost unless the Council takes a further action to deviate from the cost share formula. The local subzone in this area has not been meeting as it lacks representatives and this project would have been a very big hit to the subzone budget for years to come.