Water concerns spark funding request for groundwater studies for San Juans, Guemes

Maps by the U.S. Geological Survey of Lopez Island (left) and Skagit County Health Department of Guemes Island (right) show levels of saltwater intrusion in wells measured in studies done in 1997 and 2006.

Update: As of adjournment of the 2020 state legislative session on March 12, Sen. Liz Lovelett’s office reported that funding for groundwater studies on Guemes Island and in San Juan County were approved and included in the capital budget.

By Louise Dustrude

— Concerns of island residents about water supply sustainability are motivating requests by 40th District Sen. Liz Lovelett for state funds for groundwater studies.

The studies would provide valuable data for residents and planners in San Juan County and on Guemes Island in Skagit County, where fresh water supplies depend solely on the precipitation that feeds island aquifers.

The quantity of water coming into the island systems is both limited and not fully measured. What is known is that not more than 10% of total precipitation is absorbed into water systems, said Kyle Dodd, San Juan County’s Environmental Health Manager. “Our aquifers are not sand and gravel but fractured bedrock, which makes it tough to estimate the total amount of water available,” he noted.

In recent years, summer drought conditions and increased water use in San Juan County routinely prompt water rationing in some larger water systems. Some wells go dry for a period each summer. Not knowing the capacity of wells makes it problematic to predict future needs.

Saltwater intrusion is also a concern, with rising sea levels. A 1997 U.S. Geological Survey report on Lopez Island — one of the most recent studies — found that 46 percent of 185 freshwater samples showed saltwater intrusion.

The report notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises that water with high chloride content may cause high blood pressure, taste salty, and corrode or discolor pipes and appliances, among other effects.

The new groundwater studies would be implemented by the USGS and the state Department of Ecology, said Lovelett’s legislative assistant Jordan Kronen. The San Juan County study cost is estimated at $140,000, for which USGS has committed $50,000. Lovelett plans to initiate bills requesting the balance of $90,000 for San Juan County and $83,000 for the Guemes Island study by Feb. 7, Kronen said.

“We don’t know yet if we’ll get approval for both, one or none,” Kronen said. “It’s hard to know in a supplemental budget year.”

The idea for the proposed studies surfaced at a town hall meeting held by Lovelett last spring, when a Guemes citizen talked of the need for such a study.

“The Guemes folks came up with the project and spoke with Sen. Lovelett, and they approached us to know if we were interested in collaborating,” Dodd said. “Of course we said yes.”

The Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee is subject to final decisions by Skagit County, and have reached out to San Juan County in the past for support. San Juan County also assisted several years ago when Guemes residents began seeking support from Skagit County for rainwater catchment, Dodd said. “San Juan County had already been able to make that legal here, after Ecology gave its approval.”

San Juan County began studying water availability several years ago. Its most recent study is the San Juan Islands Resilient Community Action Plan: Water, 2017, a part of the Comprehensive Plan.

From 1999 through 2015 a county environmental health specialist coordinated the completion of some two dozen studies on water availability and quality, largely utilizing Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) funding. Unfortunately, said Dodd, “that funding went away.”

“We measure what we care about,” he said. “It’s good that USGS is interested, and I welcome the support from Sen. Lovelett’s office to make this happen.”

Dustrude-boat-square-2

Louise Dustrude moved with her husband and children to San Juan Island in 1971. She was publisher and a reporter for the Island Record from 1975-80. She is active in local politics, most recently in health care issues, and is a founding member of the San Juan Island Trails Committee.