Water quality and supply a concern on Whidbey Island

Experts worry that one day Central and South Whidbey will not have enough quality drinking water.


Special to the News-Times

Even though the region has nearly continuous rain during the current El Niño winter weather pattern, which seemingly gives residents unlimited drinking water, some experts are concerned that Central and South Whidbey will not have enough quality drinking water to satisfy demand for the future.

Addressing water availability and quality issues Monday Jan. 8, John Lovie, considered an expert advisor on drinking water and conservation of our marine environment, listened to and commented on questions posed by concerned citizens.

Lovie was invited to speak by Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon, who represents District 1. Her district includes all of Whidbey Island, south of the greater Oak Harbor area. Bacon hosts a weekly event to meet her constituents, ‘Teas with Melanie’ at WiFire Community Space in Freeland most Mondays at 3 p.m.

“At a meeting a couple of weeks ago, a question was asked about whether we have adequate aquifers to support another 15,000 people,” Bacon said by way of introduction. “I could talk from a politician’s perspective, but I’m not a scientist.”

Speaking to a diverse group representing the county, Goosefoot, Whidbey Environmental Action Network, a former Langley mayor, and more, to include about 40 total that afternoon, Lovie talked of finding balance. He received the 2023 Soundwater Stewards of Island County award for his hours volunteering on many water-oriented committees and boards, along with a lifetime achievement award from the state’s Office of Drinking Water.

“It’s about the balance between replenishment and what we’re taking out,” Lovie said. “What are we doing regarding replenishment?”

Lovie used the example of private ranchettes on 5-acre parcels as land uses that can detract from recharging ground water.

“A good amount of them contain out buildings, a driveway and a lawn,” Lovie added. “The ground gets compacted. That can take 10% of the ground’s recharge capacity. We’ve got to watch that. We may find if we’re not careful where we encourage development, we may have problems. Is this sustainable? We should look into what kind of farming uses more water than others.”

Lovie also spoke about the need for Island County’s hydrologist to provide the best data available on all of the island’s 8,000 to 9,000 wells.

He explained that while the aquifers are recharged with rainwater during the winter, the water table can be reduced during the dry summers when water usage rises. Typically it is lawns and the influx of summer visitors that use much of the island’s summer water resources.

“Our water system’s consumption doubles in the summer,” Lovie noted. “That’s lawns. Agriculture uses a good amount, too. The amount used on lawns is insane. A lot of that water evaporates. If you’ll do anything, put in a drip system. That will help.”

According to Island County’s hydrogeology webpage, 72% of Island County’s population relies on groundwater from aquifers to serve their drinking water and landscaping needs. Oak Harbor and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island use water piped in from the Skagit River.

Chris Kelley, Island County’s hydrogeologist, attended and responded to questions. Last month he reported to members of the Whidbey Island Water Systems Association — on whose board John Lovie served until Dec. 2023 — regarding well monitoring and data collection.

The association represents municipalities, Group A water systems, which serve 15 or more connections, or 25 or more people per day for 60 or more days per year; Group B water systems, which serve less than 15 connections and 25 or less people per day; private well owners; and the operators, engineers, and others who serve those water systems. There are nearly a hundred members belonging to this association, which is an advisory group concerned with all who drink water on Whidbey Island.

Kelley presented a timeline of data collection on Whidbey Island’s wells. Initially 300 wells were sampled to monitor sea level rise in the early 2000s. More than 20 years after the original hydrogeologist Doug Kelly retired, Chris Kelley noted a gap in data updates, and that the program once used to record the original data “was now technically obsolete.”

Kelley was hired in 2022 and is working on updating the database in a newer system. Much of the information must be manually entered, Kelley reported, and therefore the system is not as updated as he would like. In the meantime, his office has created a webpage, the Island County Hydrogeology Dashboard.

Maintaining water quality was also discussed at the Jan. 8 gathering.

Rainwater recharges the island’s aquifer, and wells draw from this water supply. If the wells pump too much, there is potential for seawater intrusion, which would pollute the drinking water. With climate change and the rise of sea levels due to glacier melt, Island County considers saltwater intrusion, especially along the island’s waterfront properties, a challenge it must address.

There’s also the issue of certain wells being contaminated by PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which“are a group of over 4,000 manufactured chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s because of their useful properties including their resistance to grease, oil, water and heat,” according to Island County’s webpage. PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their long-term presence, are found in the foam used in fire suppression.

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island tested wells near the base and discovered contamination. It has since responded by hooking up homeowners to other systems and providing the town of Coupeville with a filtration system.

Because of the widespread news coverage of PFAS, there is a focus on testing more of Whidbey’s wells.

In addition to PFAS and possible saltwater intrusion, other contaminants of groundwater include nitrate runoff from fertilizers, animal waste and septic systems.

Lovie also said that this year is the 50-year anniversary of the Safe Water Drinking Act. According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, the act “authorizes EPA to establish minimum standards to protect tap water and requires all owners or operators of public water systems to comply with these primary (health-related) standards.”

However, Lovie noted, the Safe Drinking Water Act only regulates what comes out of the tap.

“Natural water — surface water and until recently, wetlands — are covered by the Clean Water Act,” Lovie said. “Groundwater, unfortunately, was never covered by this act.

Part of the problem, Lovie explained, is the authority to regulate Group B and private wells has devolved to the counties.

“State DOH has Group B guidelines, which Island County has adopted, but we lack resources to manage to those standards,” Lovie added. “Private wells are pretty much unregulated.”

Unfortunately, the current guidelines and lack of resources to maintain them adds to the proliferation of more unregulated wells.

“The current system incentivizes continued well drilling for small systems,” Lovie said. “There should be consolidation of these systems. Yet, consolidation is hard, even if the people are willing.”

The Safe Water Act, for instance, mandates that arsenic levels from community water systems not exceed 10 parts per million. Many of the hundred-plus community water systems have fallen out of compliance with the arsenic level requirements.

Creating a Public Utility District to manage Whidbey Island’s hundreds of water systems could be the answer to solving the gap between the growing need of community managed wells versus the ability of water utility managers to accommodate the clients they already have. Lovie supports this idea. A PUD successfully manages community water systems in Snohomish County.

Addressing water needs and challenges is a priority for Island County’s commissioners.

“We want to understand about the quantity and quality of our water,” Bacon said at the meeting’s close. “We’re collecting data. We need to hear from our staff that this is a priority. And recognize this is a multi-district issue.”

Commissioner Bacon said the issue will be addressed by a number of county departments during the upcoming Comprehensive Plan update.

John Lovie, an expert advisor on drinking water, stands near a greensand filtration system inside a well house on SOuth Whidbey. (Photo by David Welton)

John Lovie, an expert advisor on drinking water, stands near a greensand filtration system inside a well house on SOuth Whidbey. (Photo by David Welton)