Lake Whatcom

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Lake Whatcom
Lake Whatcom Basin1.JPG
Location Whatcom County, Washington
Coordinates 48°43′59″N 122°19′41″W / 48.73306°N 122.32806°W / 48.73306; -122.32806Coordinates: 48°43′59″N 122°19′41″W / 48.73306°N 122.32806°W / 48.73306; -122.32806
Primary outflows Whatcom Creek
Catchment area 145 km2 (56 sq mi)
Basin countries United States
Max. length 13 mi (21 km)
Max. depth 350 ft (110 m)
Surface elevation 314 ft (96 m)
Islands 1 (Reveille Island)

Lake Whatcom (from the Lummi word for "loud water") is located in Whatcom County, Washington. It is the drinking water source for approximately 85,000 residents in the City of Bellingham as well as Whatcom County. It is approximately 10 miles total in length and 1 mile in width at its widest. Lake Whatcom is located and managed within three political jurisdictions: the City Of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District. The lake is a popular area for motor boating, swimming, fishing, and other recreational activities.

The lake is divided into three basins. Basin 1, the Silver Beach Basin, is the furthest north, and has a maximum depth of 100 feet (30 m). Land use in Basin 1 is primarily residential development, with one large park and several small parks. Basin 2, the Geneva Basin, is the central basin where the drinking water for the city of Bellingham is withdrawn. This basin is the shallowest, with a maximum depth of just 40–60 feet (12–18 m). Land use is primarily residential with a mix of lake protection program properties and some rural forestry. Basin 3 is the southernmost basin, and is the most remote. At its greatest depth basin 3 is 328 feet (100 m) deep, and is estimated to contain 96% of the lake's total water volume.[1] Land use in Basin 3 is composed of scattered residential development, mostly in the community of Sudden Valley, as well as rural and commercial forestry. The total area of the Lake Whatcom Watershed is 142 square kilometers (or 56 square miles).

There are nine annual streams and approximately 25 additional small creeks and tributaries that flow into Lake Whatcom. Accounting for 23 sub-watersheds in all. Lake Whatcom drains into Bellingham Bay by way of Whatcom Creek.

The lake has only one island, the 3-acre (12,000 m2) Reveille Island, owned by Camp Firwood, which is believed to be the site of past ceremonies by Native Americans, due to the presence of pictographs and a zoomorphic stone bowl found on the island.

Brief history[edit]

The earliest known settlement was a Northwest Coast Salish village at the south end of the lake, occupied by the Saquantch tribe. Around 1800 the Saquantch were pushed out by the Lummi tribe. In the 1850s came the first known settlement of Westerners on Lake Whatcom. The first claim of private land was reported for $8. Most of the area surrounding the lake was extensively logged by the end of the 19th century. Large mining operations also existed near the lake from the late 19th century through 1919, when the Whatcom Mining Company closed down. In 1946 J.H. Bloedel donated 12.5 acres to the city for what would eventually become Bloedel Donovan Park. In 1962 water was diverted from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River, through a tunnel, to supply water to a then-new paper-mill on the Bellingham waterfront.

Water quality[edit]

As a drinking water source, Lake Whatcom’s quality is in compliance for all tested chemicals, bacteria and turbidity.[2][3] Bellingham is a participant in the Partnership for Safe Water and the City’s drinking water also meets the higher standards set by this group. For the past 10 years the City of Bellingham Public Works has received the Partnership for Safe Water’s Director Award for commitment to providing safe drinking water.[4]


Lake Whatcom was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 303(d) list for impaired water bodies in 1998, due to low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels. Low Dissolved oxygen are directly related to the amount of phosphorus Lake Whatcom receives. Low DO levels do not directly affect drinking water quality. As required by the 303(d) listing, The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) created a computer model to find the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of phosphorus the lake can receive while maintaining adequate dissolved oxygen levels. In 2008 the DOE estimated that in order to achieve acceptable levels of DO, impervious/run off surfaces need to be returned to pre-1988 levels.

Most of the Phosphorus enters the lake through non point sources. Water runoff from storms in parks lands surrounding the lake and natural runoff. A small portions is attributed to lawns, gardens and streets contain some phosphorus. Aging septic systems serving development in the watershed possibly could leach phosphorus into the water body. In 2005 fertilizers containing phosphorus were banned to try to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering the lake. The City of Bellingham and Whatcom County have also restricted development activities such as land clearing, from October 1 through May 31 annually to prevent runoff from exposed soil during high precipitation months.

A 2010-2014 management program Work Plan for Lake Whatcom was approved by the councils of the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County and Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District (formerly Water District 10.)[5] Annual analysis and progress reports are prepared to support of the five year management program.[6]

View of Lake Whatcom from south end.


Lake Whatcom is a monomictic lake. The water body is stratified for part of the year (late spring through mid-fall) and mixed during the rest. This phenomenon is important to the hydrology of the lake. The top layer of water (epilimnion) is warmed by the sun and sits atop the metalimnion (also a thermocline). In this middle layer water temperatures take a pronounced decline and eventually a distinct third layer forms (hypolimnion), much colder and isolated from the rest of the water body. Minimal oxygen from the air diffuses down to the hypolimnion, causing very low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels. This combined with sediment oxidation, cause for near or complete anoxic conditions in the deeper levels of the lake. This stratification is more pronounced in Basin 3 where water is deepest. This layering of the lake, as well as the distinct physical barriers (sills) between basins cause for slow movement of water through the lake. (Ecology TMDL, 2008)

Another important hydrological phenomenon on Lake Whatcom is the occurrence of seiches. A seiche is the slow sloshing of water from one side of the lake to the other, due to winds in Lake Whatcom’s case. Winds will push water to one side of the lake, causing water levels to rise on one end and lower on the other. When the wind stops, the water rebounds back and forth until it is settled again. This up and down movement of the water causes the thermocline to rise and fall as well, which can result in the cold, anoxic water from Basin 3, to spill over the Strawberry Sill into Basin 2.

Major outputs of lake water are Whatcom Creek (77.5% of outflow),[7] City of Bellingham intake (11.3%), evaporation (7.9%) and hatchery (2.5%). The estimated residence time of water entering the lake until it leaves is 7.4 years. (Lake Whatcom Annual Report, 2008/09)[8]

Invasive species[edit]

Invasive species of particular threat to Lake Whatcom include zebra mussel, New Zealand mud snail, Asian carp, and viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS). Currently, none of the fifteen species identified by the State of Washington as “most unwanted” are found in the lake. Eurasian water milfoil is the only species on Washington’s list of 50 unwanted species (13 of which are freshwater) that is known to exist in Lake Whatcom.


Lake Whatcom is home to 13 species of fish. Among these are 6 native species including: Kokanee salmon (non-anadromous form of Sockeye), coastal cutthroat trout, Longnose Sucker, Peamouth Chub, Sculpin and Threespine Stickleback. 3 species have been introduced to the lake: Bluegill, rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass by fisheries authorities. There are 4 species that have been illegally introduced: Brown Bullhead, Largemouth bass, Pumpkinseed Sunfish and Yellow Perch[9] The Department of Health has consumption advisories for smallmouth bass and yellow perch, which can be found at the DOH Website

Watershed land use[edit]

Based on the 2000 census, there are about 13,000 residents within the Lake Whatcom Watershed. Current zoning will allow an increase to about 28,000. (Ecology, TMDL)

Land use on and around Lake Whatcom varies by basin. Most of Basin 1 falls within Bellingham City limits, which includes the most populous neighborhood of the watershed, Silver Beach. This is a high density residential neighborhood, with several public parks and open space tracts.

Basin 2 contains the Geneva neighborhood on the south-western shore of the basin. This area has mixed zoning of urban residential, rural residential and rural forestry. The northern portion of the watershed in Basin 2 is zoned for rural, rural residential, and rural forestry.

Basin 3 contains the Sudden Valley neighborhood which is high density residential. This is the primary residential population of Basin 3, as the rest of its watershed is zoned for commercial and rural forestry, as well as a small recreational open space and low density rural.

In 2001 the City of Bellingham placed a $5 per month fee (surcharge) on water bills to create a fund for purchasing land in the Lake Whatcom Watershed. To date 1,554 acres have been protected through the program, accounting for approximately 5% of the watershed. These properties are located throughout the watershed, with the most (by acreage) found in Basin 3. In 2013, the surcharge was increased to $12 per household to enable the City to acquire more properties.

Whatcom County has a temporary ban on creation of new lots under five acres in the watershed. This ban has been in place since 2005.


  1. ^ Moore, p.4
  2. ^ water-brochure-10 Archived September 24, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ "Lake Whatcom Water Quality". Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  4. ^ 2009-07-01-natl-award Archived October 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ "Lake Whatcom Management Program: 2010-2014 Work Plan" (PDF). Lake Whatcom Reservoir Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team. July 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  6. ^ "Resources - Lake Whatcom Management Program". Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  7. ^ "The Dam of the Lake Whatcom Reservoir; Whatcom County, WA". Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  8. ^ "Institute for Watershed Studies, Western Washington University". Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  9. ^ WSU


  • Moore, F. Stanley, An Historical Geography of the Settlement Around Lake Whatcom Prior to 1920. Institute for Freshwater Studies, Bellingham, Washington, 1973.

External links[edit]