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Bayview couple wonder where their water went

Liz Williamson stands next to a sign on her property near her disappearing pond. The sign is meant for county officials, who she accuses of contributing to the loss of the water her family used to swim in. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Liz Williamson stands next to a sign on her property near her disappearing pond. The sign is meant for county officials, who she accuses of contributing to the loss of the water her family used to swim in.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Liz Williamson wants to know where the water went, and when it’s coming back.

She has her suspicions about what has occurred, and she blames Island County for letting it happen because the county “didn’t follow its own laws and codes.”

“If we’re not careful, none of us is going to have any water,” Williamson said.

As long as she can remember, there was a pond on her five-acre property along Bayview Road near the Andreason Road junction. It was deep and at least 75 feet across, she said.

When she was a girl living at nearby Lone Lake, residents of the neighborhood got their drinking water from the stream that fed the pond.

Williamson boarded her horse on the property then. She would ride the horse into the pond and dive off its back. Deer drank from the pond, and ducks nested in it.

Her children Jason, Forrest and Casey, now in their 30s, spent summers splashing in the pond. A photograph of them playing in the water during a heat wave was published in the July 26, 1988 edition of the Record.

Today, she has three grandchildren, but no pond for them to swim in.

In the early 1990s, things started to change, Williamson said. Through the ensuing years, the pond became smaller and smaller. This past December, the pond disappeared completely, except for some accumulated rainwater.

“In summer, there’s been completely no water,” she said. “It’s dead dry.”

The pond had been fed by a mostly underground stream that begins about three-quarters of a mile above Crawford Road up the hill from the Williamson property.

It flowed down through three properties, including Williamson’s, then under Bayview Road and down the hill into Lone Lake.

About 1994, development began to occur above, including a 14-acre parcel with a large estate garden and three ponds of its own.

Williamson said the amount of grading in the top 50 acres, plus a house being built over the stream and Crawford Road running across it have affected the flow of water through her property.

She said the water in her well also has been altered, its nitrate levels elevated.

She began by contacting county officials, but she said they were reluctant to respond. She said they told her regulations had been followed, and that it was a water-rights issue.

“We would have liked them to come out,” Williamson said. “I think they didn’t come out because they knew they had a mess on their hands.”

In 2003, she began contacting the state Department of Ecology. This past December, three Ecology officials walked the path of the stream from Crawford Road to Williamson’s property.

“We found no evidence of illegal diversion occurring in the stream bed, and the stream bed was dry until just before your property line,” reported Christy Fiedler, of Ecology’s water resources program, in a Dec. 29, 2009 letter to Williamson. “It appears that your pond is going dry because the water table in that area is declining,” Fiedler wrote.

“If the water table gets so low it can’t feed the stream, then we’re all in trouble,” Williamson said.

Williamson, 52, was born in Seattle and moved with her family to Lone Lake 40 years ago.

She and her husband, Brock, 58, bought the pond and property in 1984.

In 1988, the couple set up a welding business next to their house. For years they’ve done repairs for a Seattle tour-boat company, as well as jobs around the island.

A large, unfinished boat — “a family project,” Brock Williamson said — is propped up next to the couple’s workshop.

Though they’ve been together for 30 years, the Williamsons have been affected by the stress of dealing with the pond. They still work together, but live in separate houses — she in one they own along Crawford Road, he in the Bayview house.

The daughter of a lawyer and prosecutor, Williamson has tenaciously filled boxes with letters and documents in an effort to get answers.

“None of this would have happened if the laws and codes were followed in the first place,” she said. “If the county did that, it would save a lot of money on litigation.”

The Williamsons have even put up a sign directed at county officials on their property near Bayview Road reading, “Your water, it’s simply no stream, no pond, no lake.”

At one time they had a half-dozen other signs planted Burma-Shave style, some quoting county regulations, but decided to take those down.

“We didn’t want the county making it harder on us than it already has,” she said.

County officials say there’s only so much that can be done when it comes to water rights and water drainage.

Andrew Hicks, enforcement officer with the island county planning department, said development requirements for drainage are laid out in the codes, but if, for example, someone redirects storm gutters, “there’s nothing we can do.”

Although not directly familiar with the Williamson case, which he said had begun before his time with the county, Hicks added:

“If there’s not a specific section of code, we can’t go out and arbitrarily say something’s wrong.”

Williamson said one of the couple’s biggest concerns is that, even though the pond and stream seem to be disappearing, the couple’s property remains designated a wetland, limiting its uses and affecting its resale value.

“This is our retirement,” she said.

Williamson said she believes that part of the problem is that the population of Whidbey Island is growing too fast, and county officials can’t keep up.

And many of the newcomers are city people who want to recreate an urban environment with lots of hard surfaces, fancy gardens and large lawns, all of which redirect stormwater from the aquifer, she said.

“If we’re not careful, they’re going to ruin this island, and no one’s going to want to live here,” she said.

Hicks agrees that the county is understaffed for the amount of growth taking place, a situation compounded by staff reductions, budget cuts and reductions in hours.

“We used to have two enforcement officers, now we have just one,” he said. “We have a lot of complaints coming in, and only one person to handle them.”

Hicks said he’s still investigating complaints that were made as long ago as last October.

As for property owners and developers, he said that rising permit fees may also encourage some of them to take shortcuts.

Aaron Henderson, the county’s environmental health director, also noted that his department no longer has a hydro-geologist on staff.

“That’s part of the reason we don’t deal more directly with water-table issues,” he said.

Williamson praises efforts such as the city of Langley’s to keep a tighter rein on development to ensure a healthy environmental balance on the island.

“I’m not an extreme environmentalist,” she said. “I just want us to follow the rules.”

“It just makes me angry, all that has happened to us, and there is nowhere to go for help,” Williamson said. “I try to keep smiling, but unfortunately I don’t smile often. I’m too focused on trying to avoid the next hit.”

Community Events, April 2014

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