Surface and Stormwater Comprehensive Plan Update


The City of Bellingham (City) updated its Surface and Stormwater Comprehensive Plan to identify and plan for population growth and development, ongoing operations and maintenance requirements, safety and property damage issues related to flooding, and environmental concerns for water quality and aquatic resources. The City’s Plan and rate study update provide a road map for the City’s stormwater utility and Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) programs with implementation strategies for the next six years. This is the City’s first major update since 2007. This plan serves as a guide for the City’s stormwater management with implementation strategies for the next six years.

The Surface and Stormwater Comprehensive Plan Update also includes the results of a rate study and outlines a cost-based surface water management rate that adequately funds existing and future surface water management utility operations, outlines a prioritized CIP to meet service level goals, and addresses State and Federal regulatory requirements (NPDES).

Additionally, the Plan identifies capital improvement needs (water quality improvement, infrastructure renewal and replacement, and fish passage projects), surface and stormwater program management requirements, and associated cost estimates for City budgeting purposes.

The Plan identifies:

  • Background information on the City’s stormwater infrastructure, water bodies, stormwater modeling, and planning
  • Considerations and risks from climate change
  • The City’s fish passage prioritization program to address fish barriers
  • Details about water quality, facility retrofit, and stormwater conveyance improvement projects
  • An in-depth review of the City’s financial policies, program funding, and rate structure and details capital improvement funding scenarios and outlines strategies to help meet the City’s stormwater goals

Public Participation

The public was invited to attend a virtual Open House on September 9, 2020. A link to the video recording of the Open House is available below. Public comments on the Plan were accepted until October 12, 2020. Learn more on our Engage Bellingham site.

The plan as adapted by City Council on September 28, 2020 with Resolution No. 2020-037.

About the Plan

Like many other City plans, the Plan identifies needs and Like many other City plans, the Plan identifies needs and priorities, proposes a schedule for projects to support a funding strategy, and suggests an appropriate budget. This plan proposes a variety of scenarios for future improvements and identifies funding sources to help pay for the work. Public Works staff gathered input from the community before recommending a final plan and associated rate and fee structure to the City Council for adoption. Council reviewed the proposals and suggestions and settled on the medium capital funding level, then approved the monthly utility rates to support the medium level of capital funding.

The Plan’s goals and objectives were:

  • Analyze the existing drainage system to identify capacity deficiencies as compared to the City’s policies and service level standards
  • Identify existing drainage problems
  • Evaluate the City’s Stormwater Management Plan (SWMP) and compliance with the City’s NPDES Phase II Permit
  • Develop a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)
  • Establish an equitable stormwater utility fee structure

Bellingham’s Surface and Storm and Surface Water Utility (SSWU) was established in 1990 to further the public health, safety and welfare by promoting a comprehensive approach to surface and stormwater problems, controlling storm and surface runoff and enhancing environmental protection. In creating the SSWU, the City specifically stated the following 4 purposes:

  • Protect the City’s aquatic resources
  • Provide a response to reduce flooding and erosion damages
  • Reduce the discharge of pollutants
  • Improve fish habitat within the City

The SSWU is responsible for operation of the City’s storm drainage system under the regulatory framework of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II Permit Municipal Stormwater permit which is a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. The Plan addresses these through planning and developing funding scenarios for projects.

Construction work involving digging in the street

The City’s responsibilities include maintaining existing stormwater infrastructure, ensuring systems have the capacity to handle new growth, addressing flooding issues, meeting permit requirements, improving water quality, and protecting and restoring aquatic resources. Furthermore, the City has a proactive stormwater program that looks to protect water quality and habitat more than is required by state regulations, and as such has a high regard to environmental stewardship.

Pipes and water quality treatment facilities are critical to the treatment of stormwater runoff and its safe transport of the runoff downstream. Protection of water quality in the City’s streams necessitates treatment of stormwater before it can be released into the streams. Flooding issues in some areas of the City will require increased detention and flow control of stormwater runoff. In addition, the City values its natural habitat and looks to address habitat restoration for salmon. Finally, the City needs operational support to accomplish these tasks.

In addition to normal City planning processes, the WA Department of Ecology requires all communities like Bellingham to be in compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972, which created a state-driven program called the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) that regulates urban stormwater systems under a 5-year permit. These NPDES permits outline a wide range of responsibilities the City must address for stormwater system design, maintenance, education, and monitoring. Under the permit requirements, our City must take action to protect water quality and to ensure long-term infrastructure integrity. The City’s proposed plan addresses these permit requirements and shows the community what is being done to protect natural systems as well as neighborhoods, businesses, and infrastructure. The City not only meets the current requirements, we meet nearly all of the new requirements from the latest NPDES Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies stormwater runoff as a nonpoint source of pollution and has, since passage of the federal Clean Water Act, enacted regulations to offset the impacts of polluted stormwater runoff on the environment. EPA has delegated authority to Ecology to implement the rules and regulations for managing stormwater in Washington State. Bellingham is a NPDES Phase II permit holder which requires the City to enforce the quantity and quality of stormwater runoff discharging from the City’s municipal separate storm sewer system to the “waters of the state.”

Phase II Permit elements for the City of Bellingham include the following:

  1. Stormwater Planning
  2. Public Education and Outreach
  3. Public Involvement and Participation
  4. MS4 Mapping and Documentation
  5. Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination
  6. Controlling Runoff from New Development, Redevelopment and Construction Sites
  7. Operation and Maintenance
  8. Source Control Program for Existing Development
WWU students taking tour of Padden Creek Daylighting project, led by City staff

The City’s stormwater program exceeds regulatory requirements to protect water quality and habitat. This plan is specific to the needs City of Bellingham and the values of this community. The Council and community have high expectations for environmental stewardship that has led to development of our proactive stormwater program.

The City values its natural habitat and looks to address habitat restoration for endangered salmon including replacement of culverts that block access upstream which salmon require to spawn. The City also values public education and engagement regarding its stormwater initiatives.

City staff using net to remove fish from Squalicum Creek as part of construction project

The following projects are examples of the City’s work to maintain and protect water quality for Lake Whatcom, Lake Padden, and other local streams and waterbodies.

  • The Harris Avenue Water Quality Project was a top priority for the restoration of the Padden Creek Estuary. Estuary restoration is essential to the recovery of both the Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. This project used Low Impact Development (LID) and a high-efficiency bioretention system, the Filterra Bioscape, to treat stormwater runoff from 90 acres of urban development prior to discharging into the Padden Creek Estuary.
  • The Stormwater Discovery Tours highlights stormwater improvements in five key locations under City jurisdiction.
  • The Downtown DIG project is improving Whatcom Creek water quality by installing 36 bio-retention facilities which helps to treat and infiltrate stormwater from over 80 urban acres.
  • The Padden Creek Daylighting and Habitat Restoration Project and the Squalicum Creek Re-Route Project are examples of the city’s commitment to the management of stormwater for habitat and restoration.
  • The City used grant funding to retrofit water quality treatment on the Guide Meridian which has the highest traffic count and greatest amount of pollution loading in the city. This recently completed project now provides water quality treatment to stormwater where previously there was none.
  • Columbia Neighborhood Stormwater Improvement Project where the City updated stormwater mains and facilities in the Columbia Neighborhood with enhanced treatment systems that reduce common pollutants in runoff before they enter the stormwater system with funding assistance from the Department of Ecology. The project, now complete, installed bio-infiltration facilities (engineered rain gardens) along with other storm drainage improvements within a specific area of the Columbia Neighborhood.

The City’s contract with a consultant included a task for and independent evaluation of the City’s overall SW program and whether regulatory requirements are being met. The evaluation notes that the City is doing quite well in meeting its obligation toward Phase II Permit compliance. In fact, the City is already making strides at completing tasks that are new in the current Phase II Permit.

City records show the City maintains the following assets:

  • More than 280 miles of stormwater pipe
  • 754 facilities including 6 regional detention ponds
  • 168 detention/water quality ponds, vaults, or pipes
  • 98 bioswales (linear swales that act like a bioretention device)
  • 100 rain gardens and bioretention facilities
  • 45 infiltration/dispersion trenches
  • 186 sand and media filter
  • 10 hydrodynamic pretreatment structures
  • 18 sections of permeable pavement (constituting more than 110,860 square feet
  • One stormwater treatment wetland
  • 16 pollution control and oil/water separator structures
  • 12,564 catch basins and 2,326 manholes

Built stormwater assets such as the above are the man-made components of a drainage system. They consist of drainage structures, pipes, ditches, detention/retention facilities, and water quality facilities that function to collect, treat, and convey stormwater runoff from surfaces toward receiving waters. Built stormwater assets require both short- and long-term maintenance to increase longevity and maintain an appropriate level of service.

Additional Information

Visit the resources below to learn more.

Read Frequently Asked Questions about the Plan.

Find videos featuring City stormwater projects on our Engage Bellingham site.

Visit to enjoy a self-guided tour of five locations in the City of Bellingham showing the city’s commitment to clean water, habitat, and stormwater infrastructure. Discover where all that rainwater goes on Bellingham’s Stormwater Discovery Tours. Explore our urban and parkland areas while learning how the City works hard to keep the water clean, filter out pollutants, and prevent flooding.

As stormwater hits the ground and washes over impervious surfaces in our urban areas, it picks up pollution and rushes into our creeks, lakes, and Puget Sound. Learn more about stormwater management and why it is important at

The City of Bellingham maintains existing stormwater infrastructure, ensures systems have the capacity to handle new growth, addresses flooding issues, meets permit requirements, improves water quality, and protects and restores aquatic resources.

Start at page 17 of the City’s Stormwater Program NPDES Report for 2020 to learn more about the significant effort the City of Bellingham is putting toward preserving and restoring the quality of water in Lake Whatcom, the source of drinking water for over 120,000 city and county residents. Per Bellingham Municipal Code, the City’s stated goals for our stormwater management program. The City must on an annual basis develop and implement a Stormwater Management Program (SWMP) and submit annual compliance reports, such as this document to the Washington Department of Ecology.