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Island County water plan stirs debate

Despite the county’s best efforts, just how much water is available underground is still not known, nor is it ever likely to be.

At a public hearing Monday about the proposed Watershed Management Plan, a riptide of criticism was evident in the comments.

North Whidbey resident Donna Painter said that the plan, which has been five years and $500,000 in the making, contains a lot of uncertainties and non-answers.

Oak Harbor resident Al Williams said that the plan does not adequately protect the existing water supply.

“What is this going to level to?” Williams asked during the hearing. “Particularly when there’s an insurgency of people that are looking at this as an area that is prime for development.”

Don Lee, chairman of the Water Resource Advisory Committee, said that serious threats to the county’s water supply do exist, but there is no need to panic about the availability of water in the future.

“We’re not involved with planning; we’re not involved with land use,” he said. “We are involved with trying to figure out the water situation.”

Island County is in a unique situation with its water supply. It has more than 850 water systems, which supply water to all of the county, except Oak Harbor and NAS Whidbey. Most places in the state only have one or two water systems.

Island County relies on five different aquifers for its drinking waters. It does not rely on lakes or rivers like the rest of the state.

“We’re a different beast than the rest of the state,” Island County Environmental Health Director Keith Higman said. “We don’t rely on a river or lake source.”

The plan’s biggest focus is on combating seawater intrusion, which is when saltwater moves into a freshwater aquifer. It affects areas near the shore and those that are below sea level. The plan would modify the county’s seawater intrusion policy to include data on the water elevation of a proposed well.

Proposed new wells will also be subject to a review of their effects on the aquifer as a whole. If in an area that is at risk of intrusion, a well would be subject to evaluation.

Higman said that only one way exists to determine how much water is available for the future.

“The only way we’ll ever know how much water we have is to dig up the whole island and see what we have,” Higman said.

The county has also developed a critical aquifer recharge area map. This map outlines areas that allow for better recharge of the aquifers. According to the plan, only 20 to 34 percent of the rain that falls in the county makes its way back into the ground.

With the new map, developers will be better able to plan improvements around areas where water is more likely to be available.

In places with shallow aquifers, for example, rainwater may not be filtered of all contaminants. The plan also encourages low-impact development in order to maintain the recharge rates.

This means limiting the amount of clearing, paving and retention of runoff in developing areas.

The plan also proposes utilizing reclaimed water for uses such as farm irrigation. In addition, the idea of using “hauled water for emergency or short-term water supply. Water could be hauled by truck or boat,” is proposed in the plan.

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