Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the number of presentations made by The Bellingham Rotary Club to the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board. This story has been updated for clarity and to correct the error.
Growing up in Bellingham, Washington, Eddie Hansen said he remembers going to Bloedel Donovan Park as a child.
"My parents would take us, or we would ride our bikes to Bloedel because my parents knew that it was safe," said Hansen, owner of Natural Way Chiropractic.
Hansen spent most of his childhood on the docks that once floated in the park's water, with lifeguards that would monitor children's activities, he said.
Those docks slowly became memories once Bloedel Donovan Park's famous “H” dock was removed due to city budget cuts, Hansen said.
Years later, the “H” dock has returned to Lake Whatcom for community members to enjoy.
Hansen said the installation of the new dock came in response to his and his wife’s discussion of Whatcom County's lack of equitable resources and safe swimming spots. He said several children ran into oncoming traffic while jumping off Electric Avenue bridge before the docks were reinstalled and that the new “H” dock encourages children to stop jumping off the bridge and have fun safely.
Hansen said he decided to undertake the project and has been working with the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club to fundraise and get permits for the last five years. He said the support of the Bellingham Marine Industries and Anchor QEA helped make that possible.
Families and children, no matter their income, race or gender, deserve public places to swim, he said.
"Although financially secure families could take their kids to the Country Club, Bayside Pools, the YMCA, or even Arne Hanna, [for example] for a single mom of three that doesn't happen," Hansen said. "A lot of times, people can't do that financially. I thought that it was ridiculous that a parent could not take their children swimming safely and have it be affordable."
Antonya Gonzalez, assistant professor of psychology at Western Washington University, said children's social and emotional development is shaped around play. She also said having free public spaces is critical for providing equitable play opportunities and can help combat common stereotypes associated with different races and incomes.
"Providing new environments for children to play in can be very enriching," Gonzalez said. "Interacting with children from certain groups that you are unfamiliar with can help give you more positive attitudes towards individuals in that specific group."
A community learning curve
Amanda Willman, a community member and parent in Whatcom County, said she grew up playing on the docks and that she hoped her kids would be able to share those moments with her once the “H” dock was rebuilt.
"I was extremely excited when I heard the docks were being put in again," Willman said. "I remember when they were taken out, and it was super sad. So, with them coming back, I just wanted my kids to be able to have those same experiences that I did."
Willman said her excitement was short-lived after arguing with one of the lifeguards. One weekend Willman was told by a lifeguard that her four-year-old daughter would not be allowed on the dock, even though she was with a parent and wearing a flotation device, she said.
Signs posted in the park later clarified the dock's rules, stating any child under the age of 13 would need to take a swim test and be "within arm’s reach of their parent," Willman said.
"I'm all for it, and I think the dock is a great idea," Willman said. "I just think they should expand the rules."
Lori Jacobson, the aquatics manager for the City of Bellingham, said community members, staff and lifeguards have a lot to learn.
"We have had to clarify with staff because, of course, this is a brand-new facility for us," Jacobson said. "And it is brand new for the lifeguards to be out there working, so it is a learning curve for all of us to make sure we are enforcing and explaining the rules properly to everyone."
Jacobson said lifeguards and staff work hard to communicate properly with each other and the public. She also said every day the staff meets to clarify any questions they may have been asked or discuss any incidents.
"All our rules have [explanations] as to why we have them," Jacobson said. "Our lifeguards are educated on the rules, and if there are any problems, we work through them together."
Jacobson also said the lifeguards must inform the public that they are only responsible for the designated swimming areas, the new dock and the beach areas. For those who go outside those boundaries, the lifeguards are not responsible for taking action but often do in emergencies.
Jacobson said lifeguards and the “H” dock are great additions to the community.
"We are just really happy that people are coming out and enjoying [the new dock]," Jacobson said. "Just be respectful of the guards who are trying to enforce the rules for the safety of us all, and if you have a question, please feel free to ask a lifeguard at any time."
How will this impact Lake Whatcom’s drinking water?
The dock's rules are not the only community concern. Hansen said getting the dock approved was not an easy process with criticism from those concerned with the dock’s impact on the water quality of Lake Whatcom.
According to the Lake Whatcom Management Program, Lake Whatcom currently supplies clean drinking water to over 100,000 residents. The dock and the increase in individuals visiting Bloedel Donovan Park caused some people to question the impacts on their drinking water.
The Bellingham Rotary Club made one presentation to the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board addressing this concern, which was the first step in the long permitting process, former President of the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club Bill Geyer said. Geyer said the process for getting the dock approved included obtaining permits, getting environmental approval and making sure the docks were compliant with lake regulations.
The funding provided by the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club and its partners helped make the installation of the dock an easier process, said Daniel Hammill, the 3rd Ward representative for the Bellingham City Council. However, Hammill said several thresholds needed to be crossed before the installation, including public safety and accessibility.
"To me, there's an equity issue involved here," Hammill said. "We have three spray parks out of all the parks we have across Bellingham. There is no public swimming pool, and [Lake Whatcom] serves that purpose. You see a lot of kids' families at Bloedel Donovan Park on a hot summer day, and a lot of those folks may not have access to recreation opportunities and so the dock further provides that."
Hammill said he served on the Lake Whatcom Policy Group for three years and that, in a "perfect world," Lake Whatcom would be fenced off to maintain water quality because it supplies drinking water. He said other places limit recreational access to their drinking water, but Bellingham has been an exception when allowing residents to recreate in their drinking water and develop along the lakeside.
"Kids recreating is a much lesser risk to the water quality," Hammill said. "There is minimal risk."
Hansen and Hammill both said they hope this dock brings joy to the community.
"There is enough negativity out there," Hansen said. "I would like diversity, and when I go down to the docks now, there is massive diversity. There are kids, adults, there's every color of person and people that use a range of pronouns out there on the dock with a smile and that's exactly why my wife and I wanted to do this."
Aria Nguyen is a second-year journalism student and city news reporter for The Western Front. Her work mainly focuses on social issues centered around Whatcom County. When not reporting, Aria enjoys listening to her favorite Taylor Swift album and practicing martial arts. You can find her on Twitter @AriaNguyen307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.