By BRANDON STONE
GUEMES ISLAND — Residents of Guemes Island are calling on Skagit County to help them preserve a threatened resource — fresh water.
Facing an increasing threat of limited groundwater and of seawater intrusion in wells, members of the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee have asked Skagit County to reduce regulations on using rainwater as a domestic water source, and to enforce existing code that requires pre-approval to dig new wells.
“It’s a disaster when you lose your water,” said committee member Steve Orsini, who has personally experienced seawater intrusion. “It was just a nightmare.”
Particularly vulnerable to seawater intrusion are wells along the north shore of the island, which has seen an uptick in development over the past 20 years.
“We’ve spent three years trying to get rainwater catchment approved by the county,” said Hal Rooks, president of the committee. “I think we’re getting kind of close to the finish line.”
The committee is bringing its requests as part of the county’s annual Comprehensive Plan amendment process. Residents last asked the county for changes in 2016 but were unsuccessful.
“We simply want (rainwater) to be on the same footing as wells,” Rooks said.
The problemwith wells
While residents in the majority of Skagit County are restricted from drilling new wells in order to protect wildlife in the Skagit River watershed, residents of Guemes Island have fewer barriers.
That is because the island’s groundwater comes from aquifers — underground layers of earth containing fresh water — that are separate from the Skagit River watershed.
Rooks said the number of wells and the amount of water they draw create problems for Guemes residents by depleting the aquifers.
These aquifers naturally recede at the edges as water is drawn from them, he said.
If enough water is pumped to lower an aquifer by one foot in the center, seawater can rise as high as 40 feet on the edges, Orsini said.
At a time when the water supply on the north side of the island is vulnerable to seawater intrusion, the committee alleges two wells have been dug without proper approval from the county, according to documents submitted to the county as part of the Comprehensive Plan amendment process.
Though the group believes wells have been put in without proper authorization, it has not filed complaints with the county.
Michael Cerbone, long-range planner with the county, said the county’s building code compliance process relies on complaints, which are not anonymous. In a small community such as Guemes Island, this can often deter people from filing a complaint.
“To actually act on something, we need to know it happened,” he said.
A May 1994 letter from the state Department of Ecology warned the county Public Health of the dangers of seawater intrusion for wells on the north side of the island, and recommended discouraging the drilling of new wells.
Instead, Rooks said, well drilling is still prevalent because it faces fewer restrictions than rainwater catchment systems.
Current county policy for potable rainwater systems requires review from an engineer from one of a handful of firms the county has approved.
Rooks said this requirement can add at least $5,000 to the cost of a system and isn’t necessary to ensure the safety of a system.
He said the county should look at San Juan County’s policy, which provides templates that can be adapted to suit homeowners’ needs. That county provides safety guidelines for rainwater catchment systems, and it is up to homeowners to follow those guidelines.
“They shift the responsibility to the homeowner,” Rooks said. “If you harm yourself, that’s on you.”
Catching the rain
Orsini has lived on the island since 1989, and started to notice seawater intrusion in his well in 1998.
“You can taste it,” Orsini said. “It doesn’t taste salty, but it starts to taste bad.”
Several years prior, residential development started to take off on the island, bringing new wells and more strain on the aquifers, he said.
“That’s the reason, I’m quite sure of it,” Orsini said.
Despite existing regulations, several Guemes residents, including Orsini, have operational rainwater catchment systems.
Inspired by a trip to New Zealand, where such systems are common, he designed and built his own in 2006, which he uses for everything from drinking to irrigation.
In a detached garage he calls his water barn, Orsini installed a 10,000-gallon system that has a series of filters.
“I filter the bejesus out of it,” he said. “I haven’t poisoned myself yet.”
Including land, the building and the water system itself, Orsini said he spent about $100,000, though he said the system was over-engineered for his needs and that he could have saved money by building a smaller system that would have served him just as well.
His rainwater system has served him well through several summer droughts, and has proven to be more reliable than his well was, he said.
“If I can do this, it’s not rocket science,” he said.
Nancy Fox, another member of the advisory committee, moved to the island in 2009 having no idea that her water came from two shallow wells on her property.
“We were completely ignorant of what our water source was,” Fox said.
While the wells she uses aren’t deep enough to suffer from seawater intrusion, she said they are more likely than deeper wells to run dry. So she and her husband decided to supplement their water with a rainwater catchment system.
Her system, which she uses only for irrigation, uses an 8,400-gallon outdoor tank built to look like a grain silo.
On Wednesday, Rooks will meet with the Skagit County Planning Commission to discuss the comprehensive plan amendment proposals and to answer questions, Cerbone said.
From there, the commission and county planning staff will make a recommendation to the county commissioners, who will decide whether to adopt the amendments.
Cerbone said he hopes to have the recommendation completed and sent to the commissioners by the end of the year.
Ultimately, Rooks said, residents of Guemes Island need a better understanding of how much freshwater is available on the island, and potentially set some sort of water budget.
The advisory committee has explored working with the county to set a limit on household water use, but Rooks said this would require an understanding of how much water the aquifers can provide.
“We don’t know that on Guemes,” Orsini said. “We don’t know because the county hasn’t helped us plan our next step.”
Residents helped fund a 1994 study by the U.S. Geological Survey that found seawater intrusion is a serious concern, but the study made no determinations on the amount of available water.
Cerbone said the county would be open to more research on Guemes, and thinks the county could do more to educate residents on the impacts of their actions in an effort to encourage them to conserve water.
“It’s the carrot approach, instead of the stick,” he said.