County well policy moving towards ‘cautionary approach’

When you live on an island, water has the potential to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

About 45 people listened to a public presentation on San Juan Islands’ water at noon, Monday, Nov. 14 at the San Juan Island Library.

Paul Kamin, chairman of the San Juan County Water Resource Management Committee, presented on island water sources, preservation, catchment systems and desalination for about an hour and 30 minutes, while fielding questions throughout. The meeting was presented by the League of Women Voters of the San Juans.

“We need to shift the culture to believe that water is for all of us,” said Kamin. “We need to work together as effectively as possible.”

Kamin explained that a recent Washington Supreme Court case ruled that counties are responsible for ensuring there is enough water for new wells, before building permits are issued.

“It attracted our attention because it was the first time the county was responsible,” said Kamin. “We are moving to a more cautionary approach. There have already been discussions in San Juan County around this.”

In San Juan County, owners of new wells that are located 1,000 feet from shoreline are responsible for ensuring their wells do not deplete their neighbors’. The code helps to prevent seawater from leaking into aquifers that feed the wells.

About 22 percent of island residences rely on private wells, and the rest use water systems regulated by the county or the state. In San Juan County, there are 5,000 wells — that’s one well for every three people, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Kamin said water on the island is replenished only by precipitation. Unlike on the mainland, water is not transported from different locations, like rivers, snow caps or aquifers that span through several states.

The island uses saved water from about May to September — when it’s the most populated and rainfall is the scarcest.

“A lot of the problems with water in the county is our proximity to the ocean,” said Kamin.

According to a 2001 study, only 10 percent of the annual rainfall in San Juan County becomes groundwater to be used by people. Most of the islands’ rainfall runs back into the ocean, instead of into the ground like on the mainland. In Skagit County, about 30 percent of the annual rainfall is used for “groundwater recharge,” said Kamin.

Lopez Island has the most groundwater and well problems because it has the lowest elevation, and therefore the least amount of precipitation.

“Despite all of these challenges, I’m going to be bullish and say we can meet our water needs,” said Kamin.

Kamin said that a 2006 study on the county proved that if every resident collected rainfall for water use, it would not decrease groundwater replenishment. Eventually, water collected from roofs and used in houses, would travel to households’ septic systems and back into the ground.

Of the 17 desalination systems in Washington that treat seawater for potable use, 15 are in the San Juan Islands because there are areas without access to fresh water, said Kamin. Desalination removes minerals from salt water so it can be used by people. Shoreline property owners most commonly use desalination systems, which can require large amounts of energy, permits and funds.

Kamin said an average American uses 150 gallons of water a day.

“We are water pigs, us Americans,” said Kamin.

In Friday Harbor, residences use 110 gallons and in Eastsound, 87. Advances in low-flow appliances, like toilets and dishwashers, help to conserve water.

The LWV of the San Juans has held a position on freshwater issues since 1996 that includes promoting water conservation.

“Water issues are important because it is a limited resource and we need to know how to conserve it,” said LWV of the San Juans President Clare Kelm.