Whatcom plans as climate crisis threatens shorelines, homes, livelihoods

A march in Bellingham on Sept. 20, 2019, organized as part of the international climate strike, drew thousands of young people and over-25 supporters. (Photo © 2020 Amy Nelson)

By Kimberly Cauvel

— The worst impacts of climate change in Whatcom County are yet to come, scientists say; among them:

  • Shorelines from the Nooksack River delta to Birch Bay will be swallowed up by rising sea levels, sediment flows and storm surges
  • Receding glaciers will stop feeding cold water into the region’s rivers during summer, pushing temperatures too high for salmon to survive and spawn new generations.
  • Potentially catastrophic wildfires, uncharacteristic of Western Washington in the past, will jeopardize homes, farms, livestock, and forests.

Researchers at the University of Washington, Western Washington University, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other agencies say that while some changes may seem to be emerging slowly, swift action is needed to curb and prepare for them.

Residents are already seeing impacts on the waterfront, air quality and fisheries they treasure, and local and state officials have begun the complicated task of assessing and planning for multiple consequences.

No standards means no guidelines

Both the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County started climate action plans a dozen years ago, but planners say the task remains challenging because the state has not set standard regulations to guide this new aspect of community planning.

More recently, Whatcom County established a Climate Impact Advisory Committee in 2017, and the City of Bellingham established a Climate Action Plan Task Force in 2018.

Both are considering how to incorporate the latest climate change science into their core planning and policy documents for future development and growth.

Whatcom County Long Range Planner Chris Elder said part of the challenge is that no state requirements exist, so there’s no framework for local governments to follow when updating major documents such as comprehensive plans that establish goals and policies for land use, development and conservation.

“The state doesn’t require any climate change consideration in planning. It’s kind of ridiculous,” he said, while looking at a 2012 “Preparing for Climate Change” document from the state Department of Ecology. “There’s all kinds of recommendations … but none of them are mandated yet.”

Elder said he believes every project, from new residential developments to road upgrades, should require a climate vulnerability assessment to help determine whether it will withstand a rise in sea level rise and other climate changes, or could be modified to improve its long-term success.

“I’m hopeful over the next couple years we will have a more unified strategy for tackling some of this stuff, but it has been slow,” he said.

‘100-year’ flooding … now every 22 years

Storms in the Salish Sea may become more intense and occur more often as the climate changes. As levels rise, storms can push destructive waves farther inland toward homes and businesses along the shoreline and areas with waterfront views.

“Coastal storms will be added to a higher base sea level. What that means is the amount of flooding we currently consider to be like a 100-year flood on the coast is going to happen more often than every 100 years,” said research scientist Guillaume Mauger of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. “In Puget Sound that change is going to be dramatic.”

Even without storms, rising local sea levels will have an impact, according to projections Mauger and his colleagues completed in 2018. On average, shorelines in Whatcom County will rise an estimated 1.5 to 2 feet by the turn of the century, depending on how well greenhouse gas emissions are curbed.

A December 20, 2018, storm that caused at least $2 million in damages to the Birch Bay waterfront, according to the Bellingham Herald, revealed how vulnerable such areas are throughout the county. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced in March that Whatcom County is eligible for aid to help cover the cost of emergency response and repairs from that storm.

The odds of experiencing a 100-year flood are on track to increase by around 25 percent by 2040 — becoming a 22-year event — according to a consortium of organizations, including the USGS, which models impacts on coasts in the region.

When sea level rises two feet, water will inundate the Nooksack River delta and Birch Bay Drive, and shorelines at Sandy Point and Mud Bay could encroach on homes, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. The water could also raise levels of Terrell, Silver, Squalicum, Dakota and California creeks, threatening neighborhoods near their banks.

At a rise of about four feet, the Lummi Reservation would become an island due to heavy inundation south of Ferndale. Large areas of Birch Bay would also be under water.

“Some people may have to move out of some areas … Sandy Point, Birch Bay, Semiahmoo Spit,” environmental consultant David Roberts said during a recent presentation to the Bellngham City Club. “Those areas are kind of ground zero on this.” Roberts owns the consulting firm Kulshan Services with expertise in environmental science and engineering.

“All of our infrastructure is vulnerable to sea level rise … our waterfront as a whole isn’t prepared for that,” said Renee LaCroix, assistant director and natural resources lead for the city’s Public Works department.

Bellingham Senior Planner Steve Sundin said the city is preparing to include the latest sea level rise data in its next update of the document that guides development and protection of shoreline areas. The update is due next year.

“We are really just starting to grapple with this,” he said.

Update: The City of Bellingham Climate Action Task Force presented its report to the city council on December 9, 2019. The council created a Climate Action Committee, directed to begin work January 13, 2020, to determine next steps.

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Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.