Looking ahead in the San Juans: island water planning ... 2036 - Salish Current
December 1, 2022
Looking ahead in the San Juans: island water planning … 2036
Nancy DeVaux

Where, possibly … but how much? Dowsers, also known as water witches, were believed to be able to locate water underground with the help of “divining rods” of copper or wood—and reportedly are still employed by some. However, hydrologists these days are looking to technologies such as ground-penetrating radar to identify, map and assess the volume of aquifers. An illustration from “A Tour in Wales” (1781) by Thomas Pennant shows a dowser at work.

December 1, 2022
Looking ahead in the San Juans: island water planning … 2036
Nancy DeVaux


“Water is a public resource, so it seems logical that we should get more data,” Kimbal Sundberg told the San Juan County Council as they reviewed the Water Element of the Comprehensive Plan last month. Yet even as the county updates its water-use policies, little is known about the actual supply. 

Sundberg is chair of the Clean Water Advisory Committee (CWAC), which worked on drafting the element and will continue to work on implementing its policies by recommending code changes and other measures meant to protect the islands’ finite—but unmeasured—groundwater resources.

The 2036 Comprehensive Plan including the Water Element and nine other sections were adopted Nov. 30, and will guide growth and development until 2036. The updated goals and policies come out of a six-year process which began in 2016 among advisory committees, the planning commission and public input. 

While the year-round population of San Juan County is relatively small (around 18,200 in 2022, growing at just over 1% annually in recent years), there is an increasing influx of visitors, especially during the summer months. 

No metering, no data

Accurately measuring the amount of groundwater reserves in the islands generates controversy since most of the 5,400 wells in the county are private exempt wells that do not require meters. For those that do have them, in most cases data is not being collected. Forty percent of the county’s population is served by private exempt wells, which are individual wells that typically do not have a water right. They are allowed to use up to 5,000 gallons per day, though actual use is unknown. 

One policy in the plan aims to create incentives for all new and existing water users to install a water meter that is capable of electronically reporting water use data.

County council member Jamie Stephens questioned whether it is possible to develop a water budget, one of the primary goals of the plan, before water use data is available. Stephens said that the council has had significant pushback from community members regarding metering.  “I’m all for incentives,” he said, “but I’m not seeing a lot of people embracing putting a meter on their well that has traditionally not had a meter on it… and believe me, I’m all for metering.” 

Kyle Dodd, San Juan County Environmental Health Manager, characterized some conversations on the topic at the CWAC meetings as “animated.” Dodd said there are ways to budget without the detailed metering information and having actual data is most meaningful. “I also agree and acknowledge that moving to actually placing and reading the meters will be a significant lift,” he said.

Since 2007 there has been a requirement in the Groundwater Code that water meters are to be installed on all new individual wells, Dodd said, but “there has never been a plan in place to have the data reported.”

When the CWAC drafted the first Water Element in 2017, Sundberg said, they were excited about new technology that could use electronic meter readings to develop a database. “We saw a real lack of quantitative information about how much water is being used, particularly in agriculture, which uses both ground water and surface water, he told the council.” Metering could solve a number of problems, he said: “We see seawater intrusion; people who have no information; people who don’t know if their pipes are broken…. It would be a push, but we need to get better ways of measuring.” 

More to the plan

Other Water Element policies include developing a water budget that tracks water use from residential, agricultural, commercial and industrial uses; establishing a publicly accessible water resources database; and retaining the services of a professional hydrogeologist to support long-term monitoring, data collection, and trend analysis. 

A section on climate change has been added, acknowledging increasing periods of extended drought and changing weather patterns.

The Water Element also calls for a method of funding and assignment to specific county departments to develop policies. 

Over 13,000 acres in San Juan County have been designated as agricultural resource land, and small farm production of vegetable and fruit crops are increasing while forage production and livestock remain dominant. County farms irrigate with both surface water from ponds and groundwater. There is no available data on the quantity of water being used for irrigation and agriculture in the county, but nationally, it is estimated that over 70% of water use is associated with agriculture. The Water Element recognizes that “Without adequate water, this designation is meaningless.”

A limit to growth?

Water is often thought of as a potential limiting factor to growth but San Juan County does not restrict development of individual homes based on the availability of groundwater. 

“Alternate sources” of water can be authorized to obtain a building permit. For instance, there are over a dozen desalination facilities in the islands, creating potable water that serves approximately 500 connections—far more than in any other county in the state. Some of these are group systems that were approved only after seawater intrusion degraded the original well. 

In addition, San Juan County has issued building permits for new single-family homes that depend on hauled water or rainwater catchment systems, which are commonly used to supplement a groundwater source. Approved alternative sources require a recorded operation and maintenance covenant to be filed with the county auditor. 

As to the question of whether every parcel in the county may be developed, Dodd said there could be restrictions based on septic limitations or archaeological conditions, but a building permit would not be denied based on a lack of potable water.

Best estimates

The county has been designated a critical aquifer recharge area because its aquifers are highly susceptible to contamination, particularly from seawater intrusion.

While much of the county population is served by private wells, surface water reservoirs and lakes supply drinking water to Friday Harbor and Eastsound. Since precipitation is the only source of recharge for surface and groundwater supplies, understanding the rate of recharge and withdrawal becomes critical in future growth.

A United States Geologic Survey (USGS) study is currently underway to review and compile available hydrologic data, estimate groundwater recharge, compile or estimate water use information and provide an updated water balance for San Juan County.

Elise Wright, USGS hydrologist, said that even though data from meter readings from private exempt wells are not available, “We estimate water use using the best available data and reproducible methods.” These data come from both local and state departments, such as the Department of Health, Department of Ecology, Department of Agriculture, San Juan County, and local water systems.  The study will estimate public supply, domestic self-supply, and irrigation.  Wright said, “These estimates are the best we can provide based on existing data and current methods.”

The study is on-track and expected to be released to the public by late 2023.

Island neighbors in Skagit County

Guemes Island residents are awaiting results of a similar study from USGS as they grapple with protecting their own groundwater supply. (See “Water supply on Guemes: an island paradise faces challenges,” Salish Current, July 27, 2021.)

Skagit County requires new wells to have meters, but just as in San Juan County, data is not collected. “We are not sure how much enforcement the county does. Enforcement has been a major problem for us with our water supply,” said Patty Rose, Guemes Island resident and member of the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee.

Compared to San Juan County, Skagit has been slower to accept rainwater catchment as an alternate water source. Rose has been trying for years to persuade the county to be more accepting of rainwater catchment for drinking water. “They are starting to make it easier for people,” she said, “but they still require an engineer’s stamp on the design, which is expensive. We did a rainwater catchment tour last summer, which drew a lot of interest.”

There is also a small desalination system on Guemes Island in an area where seawater intrusion has caused wells to fail.

“We’re trying to forestall seawater intrusion,” said Guemes Steve Orsini. “We’ve made some progress but not much.” Orsini said that a legal opinion from the Skagit County prosecuting attorney’s office several years ago determined that monitoring wells was outside the county’s jurisdiction because the Department of Ecology issues well permits.

As a result, the county did not contribute to the USGS study, which was funded with the help of Sen. Liz Lovelett [D-40], who also assisted with funding of the San Juan County study. 

Water studies are underway, planning moves forward with best available data, development and growth continue while the climate changes the variables of air, land and water. Islands in both San Juan and Skagit counties are struggling to protect limited groundwater and to improve methods of monitoring supplies. Because without water to drink, there’s not much more.

—Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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