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Drought impacts will be less on Whidbey

"Marty Murphy sweeps puddles of rain water off the high jump area at Waterman Field Thursday. South Whidbey was bombarded with heavy rains last week, even as Gov. Gary Locke proclaimed that Washington state is in the midst of the worst drought since 1976.Matt Johnson, staff photoWhidbey Island has seen five inches less rain than average this winter, but island plants, animals, and people are unlikely to feel much of an impact as spring begins.On the island, there are no reservoirs to run dry or dams to run out of water. Our water is mostly underground where the situation is different. At least until summer.Gov. Gary Locke last week proclaimed the state to be in the midst of its worst drought since the mid-1970s. Although things may not be so bleak here, Whidbey Island is also falling behind in the water department.According to figures collected by the Washington State University Extension service, as of last Thursday afternoon the island had received 9.8 inches of rain since October. That figure is five inches less than the average for the period, said Island County hydrogeologist Doug Kelly, who has been watching island water levels for the past three years. We, like the rest of the state, have been running significantly behind on rainfall, Kelly said.Unlike in Snohomish County, where the lack of rainfall is draining reservoirs necessary for everything from drinking water to producing hydroelectric power, the effect of the drought in Island County might not be felt until summer, if at all. Kelly said Whidbey Island does not rely on surface water, which responds to periods of drought or heavy rain almost instantaneously.The people living on the island draw their water from underground aquifers, which take months or years to respond to a change in rainfall. Deep aquifer wells that push into water supplies 200 to 300 feet below the surface can take over a decade before they show the effects of a drought, according to Kelly.This year, Kelly said, it remains to be seen if island aquifers will be impacted by the drought. If it continues, Central Whidbey aquifers already experiencing salt water intrusion could be further damaged or destroyed. Some wells not yet in this situation could also be infiltrated if the island stays dry through summer.Kelly said that probably won't happen. Historically, years that have seen low winter rainfall have wet springs. Even as he spoke Thursday, a steady rain soaked South Whidbey. A thunderstorm ended the day's rain by dumping a torrent on the Southend and heavy rain continued through the weekend.Still, Kelly said island residents would be wise to take the governor's warnings to heart. Conserving water is the best way to avoid the hardships of a drought, he said, and is something the island's well users should practice. We try to have that message out there all the time, Kelly said.In the future, the county or state may begin to offer no-interest loan financing for rain collection systems to help county residents rely less on aquifers. The county currently offers similar loans to homeowners who need to repair failing septic drainfields.In the meantime, common sense water conservation efforts are strongly recommended. "

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