The burn ban begins

The impacts of a dry summer season began to emerge this week as a county-wide burn ban took effect and faucets from historically low-producing wells began slowing to a trickle.

Sheriff Michael Hawley, who doubles as the county’s fire marshal, banned outdoor burning of natural debris beginning July 1 at noon. This is the first tier of what could be further bans if weather conditions continue to dry out the county. The ban includes permit-holders, though it does not include recreational fires in lined outdoor pits. Legal fireworks are also allowed, at least for the time being.

The county’s fire districts have reported few grass fires so far this season, none on South Whidbey. So, what triggered the ban?

“Years of experience,” said Jan Smith, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office. “The sheriff does have a scientific method. He goes out, kicks his toe in the dirt, and sees it’s very dry.”

Joking aside, Smith said the conditions for small fires getting out of control are worsening as the summer continues to brown the grass and understory.

“It’s been real dry, even though we got some good rains,” she said. “It’s dried out and then the wind picks up and dries it out some more.”

According to figures collected in Coupeville by the WSU Extension Service, precipitation on that part of the island has been considerably lower than the historical average during the last four years. The month-to-month rainfall has been consistently below normal, with the exception of the first five months of this year. Precipitation was actually up by nearly an inch through May. June figures were not yet available.

The Coupeville area, which sees less rain than the north or south portions of the island, has had 9.99 inches so far this year. For the previous four years, the accumulations were below normal by 3.24 inches in 2000, 0.34 inches in 2001, 3.91 inches in 2002, and 2.97 inches in 2003.

The weather-caused burn ban could elevate over time to include recreational fires and all fireworks, as happened last summer, she said. That full ban began July 31 last year.

A contractor preparing a homesite near Coupeville, burning debris on the last full day before the ban, confirmed that the underlying tinder was bone dry. He said small spot fires continually jumped from the burn pile to other parts of the lot and that he had to keep careful watch to keep the smoldering fires from taking off.

In an effort to reduce the chance of fire from illegal fireworks, Sheriff Hawley has offered to temporarily deputize firefighters throughout the islands, Smith said. As deputies, firefighters would have limited authority to confiscate all illegal fireworks.

District 3 Chief Dan Stout declined the offer, as did most of the other districts.

“That’s an enforcement issue and it entails training,” he said. “We haven’t had any of that type of training.”

Firefighters in District 2 on the north end of Whidbey are the only ones to accept the offer.

The drought effect

The drought is having its effect below ground as well, resulting in signs going up at Lakeview Terrace again.

The Bayview subdivision overlooking Lone Lake has once again been cautioned to conserve water as the holding tank at the top of the hill runs low. It’s part of an annual cycle, said Clive Defty, owner of King Water, which manages the system along with many others.

“Lakeview Terrace has a history during the summer quarter of running low on water,” he said.

This time of year it becomes a “delicate balance” of meeting the water needs of the customers, he said, while avoiding the excesses of water usage common in the hot summer months.

The hot summers of the last few years has led to higher water usage around the island. Local water utilities are urging their customers to use water wisely.

“Overall, we ask our customers to conserve to a certain degree,” said Sandy Duncan, administrative assistant for Bayview Beach Water District. “But, it’s definitely voluntary.”

As a matter of course, the Bayview Beach district sends notices to customers to monitor their usage, she said.

This year’s dry summer, along with hot and arid summers during the last several years, have had very little impact on the availability of water on the island, according to Doug Kelly, hydrogeologist for Island County. Those water systems that have a history of shortages or saltwater intrusions are showing signs of trouble again, he said. But, Kelly did not know of any new troubles due to long-term or short-term drought.

The vast majority of island aquifers are so deep and protected that the rains percolating through the soils to recharge the system take years or tens of years to reach the ground water, Kelly said. Given these conditions, winter rains can make up for summer drought, or a good rain year can make up for a couple bad rain years, he said.

“This provides a buffer to drought conditions,” he said.

Lower lake levels are seen in some places, but not others, depending on the water source for the lake. A lake that is an open reflection of the groundwater generally remains stable despite precipitation levels and temperatures. Other lakes, such as Goss Lake, which appears considerably lower than normal, are mostly recharged through precipitation, Kelly said.

“Those lakes you’ll see get high in the winter and low in the summer,” Kelly said. “And groundwater lakes stay pretty steady.”

The shortage at Lakeview Terrace is routine and not acute, Defty said. It’s easily manageable if everyone cooperates in conserving water, he points out. That means wise use, rather than restricted use of water.

“Don’t water the lawn and go away and leave the sprinkler on for three hours,” he said.

The subdivision has a gravity fed water system with a tank high on the hill. The tank has no gauge, leaving the water level a mystery until customers begin to notice a change.

“The first thing we get is a call from atop of the hill that water is down to a trickle,” Defty said.

That call came in on Monday and the signs went up by the end of the day. Local homeowners are used to the summer shortage and are very good at conserving, he said. King Water tracks water usage weekly and the usage goes way down during periods of conservation, he said.

As an island community, residents tend to be water conscious, Kelly said. He said he’s constantly invited to make presentations throughout the county about water conditions and resources.

“I feel like I’m on the talk show circuit,” he said. “People are more aware of water and its necessity and vulnerability than anywhere else I’ve ever worked.”

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