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Committee responds to Navy groundwater pumping

Island County hydrogeologist Doug Kelly points out that water levels in wells have dropped since the Navy started pumping groundwater. - --
Island County hydrogeologist Doug Kelly points out that water levels in wells have dropped since the Navy started pumping groundwater.
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The Navy isn’t going to stop pumping large amounts of groundwater from North Whidbey, but a volunteer group is advising Island County commissioners about how to respond to a controversy surrounding the issue.

Since the dispute arose, concerned citizens have created a group dedicated to preserving their water wells in the face of the perceived threat. The members urged the Island County Water Resources Advisory Committee to take action and are relatively pleased with the results.

“It’s very encouraging,” said resident Bruce Saari, who first raised the alarm about the Navy’s groundwater pumping and succeeded in getting a wide swath of residents and officials involved in the issue.

The central concern that the Island County Water Resources Advisory Committee seeks to respond to is the lack of transparency in the process of granting water rights. Neighbors of the Gallery Golf Course were surprised and upset to find out this year that the Navy received a permit from the state to draw up to 39 million gallons of groundwater each year to irrigate the golf course greens. While the process took two years and included opportunities for public input, neighbors and county officials just didn’t know about it.

The committee approved a letter to the county commissioners during a meeting Thursday that was drafted after weeks of gathering information, listening to public testimony and talking to officials. The committee, commonly referred to as WRAC, is meeting with commissioners at an Aug. 8 work session.

The committee advises commissioners to respond to a letter from the base commander about the issue and ask him to confirm in writing that only about 10 million gallons will be pumped each year; to urge the Department of Ecology to communicate more effectively with counties and citizens; and ask state Legislators to change state water laws to be more environmentally friendly.

The state currently has a “use it or lose it” rule on water rights, which WRAC members felt only encourages rights holders to use water instead of conserving it.

A dozen or so neighbors attended the meeting to voice concerns about the Navy’s plans. Shannon Stone complained that the water level in her well has dropped about two feet in recent weeks.

“I’ve lived here 23 years and I don’t have an artesian well anymore,” she said.

Indeed, Doug Kelly, the county’s hydrogeologist, confirmed that the water level near the golf course has dropped by more than two feet in the last month due to the pumping by the Navy. Kelly was hired by the Navy to help with the permit while he was working for a Seattle hydrogeology firm.

While the drop in the level of water under the ground seems dramatic, Kelly said the neighbors have little to worry about. He said the water level in wells will probably decline by about three feet by the end of the watering season; he said it won’t even come close to being enough to cause impairment of wells or saltwater intrusion.

“The story here is that the drawdown is what we were expecting to see,” he said.

After the Navy’s plans came to light, a group of more than 60 neighbors created a group called Preserve Our Water Wells. Members of the group, two county commissioners, the Navy commander and a Department of Ecology official have exchanged a series of emails about the issue that have been circulating around the community.

Commissioner Angie Homola, a Democrat, sent Capt. Jay Johnston, commander of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, a letter suggesting a couple of measures the Navy could do to help alleviate community concerns. In response, the Navy is following her idea of compiling testing data and placing it on the county health department’s website for public viewing.

Saari said both Homola’s and the WRAC’s letter accurately reflect the neighbors’ concerns and the solutions they espouse.

Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson, on the other hand, upset members of Preserve Our Water Wells — who are voters in her district — by writing Johnston a letter stating that the group’s request for assurances about the amount of pumping is “purely political” and she blames government agencies for responding to them.

“It is disheartening to see state and local agencies exploit the taxpayers by giving time to this sort of political fodder and I apologize that it has worsened to a point of distracting our national security,” she wrote.

 

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