Navy’s golf course water right angers nearby residents

Gary Crabtree practices his swing at the Navy’s Gallery Golf Course on North Whidbey. He said it’s a great golf course and he uses it every chance he gets. He feels it’s environmentally smart to use local water instead of piping it in from a river.  - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Gary Crabtree practices his swing at the Navy’s Gallery Golf Course on North Whidbey. He said it’s a great golf course and he uses it every chance he gets. He feels it’s environmentally smart to use local water instead of piping it in from a river.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

Neighbors of the Navy’s Gallery Golf Course on North Whidbey were surprised to discover that up to 39 million gallons of water each year will be drawn from a well to irrigate the greens.

The Navy was granted a water right through the state Department of Ecology last June, but residents weren’t aware of the plans until long after the official comment period was over and the decisions had been made.

Bruce Saari, who lives across the road from the 18-hole course, found out after the county’s hydrogeologist asked if he would monitor his well to see if the new pumping affects water levels. He immediately started making calls and researching the golf course’s plans. He said he was alarmed by the sheer volume of the water right and the fact that so few people in the community or county government were aware of it.

“Everyone is slicing and dicing the water here and the only one missing from the table is the community,” he said.

Yet it’s clear that the Navy followed the law and obtained the water right based on a groundwater modeling study conducted by one of the top hydrogeology firms in the state, which was then reviewed by another firm and a state official.

“It was justified from the science. It was justified from the statutes,” said Doug Wood, a hydrogeologist for the Water Resources Program of the Department of Ecology. He was the technical manager of the project.

The required legal notices about the water right application ran twice in the Whidbey News-Times in 2010, but there was no additional outreach or public notification. The Department of Ecology received no public comment during two open-comment periods.

Saari said people who should have been made aware, like County Commissioner Angie Homola and members of a county water conservancy board, didn’t know anything about the application until he alerted them. The county isn’t involved in the process of granting water rights, but he points out that local officials have a wealth of knowledge about groundwater.

More than 30 neighbors of the golf course gathered earlier this month for an impromptu meeting about the water right. One of the neighbors, Jan Helwig, said everyone was pretty worried.

“I don’t think we need to risk water contamination and depletion because of a golf course,” she said.

Saari opined that the pumping could have impacts as far south as Penn Cove.

“A 39 million gallon withdrawal would be equivalent to drilling 278 new private wells into the aquifer, each serving a family of four,” he said. “The difference is that the Navy would be withdrawing the 39 million gallons during the dry season only.”

Commissioner Homola said she shares the residents’ concerns, but she feels reassured that monitoring of the wells can help prevent any problems. The Navy must monitor the wells that are being drawn from and the county is monitoring a couple of wells in the neighborhood.

She also pointed out that the water right isn’t “perfected” for five years. The actual amount of water used to irrigate will be recorded and the final permit will be based on the average amount used, which she said will likely be less than the 39 million gallons per year.

Still, Homola said community concerns could have been dealt with earlier if the entities involved had done a better job of notifying the neighbors and reaching out to the county.

“The public notification requirements are inadequate,” Homola said, referring to the statues. “I will continue to advocate for effective public notice.”

Keith Higman, director of county Public Health, emphasized that the state has a process in place to objectively and scientifically evaluate the availability of water using a conservative standard. He said he doubts the outcome would have been any different if the neighbors had been aware.

“It’s not a vote of whether you want it or don’t want it,” he said. “It’s a scientific evaluation, not a popularity contest.”

Higman said the state has a “first in line, first to right” water rights law, which means the rights of people with existing wells are protected from new uses. If the golf course pumping impairs the neighbors, he said, the Navy’s water right would have to change.

The Navy obtained the right to pump groundwater for irrigation as a cost-saving measure, according to base spokeswoman Kim Martin. The golf course was previously irrigated with water that’s piped to Whidbey from the city of Anacortes’ water treatment plant on the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, which is also the source of drinking water for Oak Harbor and the Navy base.

The water right allows pumping for irrigation from April 15 to Oct. 15 each year. The permit is for 39 million gallons a year with a maximum instantaneous rate of 150 gallons a minute. The golf course is 200 acres total, but less than 85 acres require irrigation.

The golf course used 9 million gallons of water in 2011 and 8.5 million gallons in 2010 to irrigate tee boxes, fairways and greens. The amount used to be larger, but was reduced with the installation of a state-of-the-art irrigation system, according to Martin.

The Navy hired a Seattle hydrogeology firm to do pump tests and create a model of the groundwater in the area. Ironically, the hydrogeologist who performed the study was Doug Kelly, who recently returned to work as the staff hydrogeologist for the Island County health department. The Navy also hired second consulting firm to review Kelly’s study.

Wood said the study showed that the water for the golf course was available and wouldn’t impair any existing water rights. In addition, he said, the approval of the water right would not prove detrimental to the public interest.

“That’s not to say there will not be any impact. You can’t pump water out of the ground without an impact,” he said.

One of the issues Kelly looked at in his study is a Superfund site north of the golf course on the Navy’s Ault Field base and whether the pumping of water would draw the contaminated plume. The contamination is at the site of a former landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency lists the site as active; the groundwater in the area is contaminated with volatile organic chemicals, according to the agency’s website.

Wood said the modeling showed that there’s a geological fault between the golf course and the Ault Field base that would prevent the flow of contaminated water.

At the request of citizens, the county’s Water Resources Advisory Committee will discuss the issue at its meeting at 3 p.m., Thursday, June 7, at Heller Fire Station 25, 2720 Heller Rd, Oak Harbor. Officials from the Navy and neighbors of the golf course have said they will attend.


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