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City, county conserve water

Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a statewide drought last week, but nobody concerned about Whidbey Island’s water supply is panicking.

Monday, Oak Harbor officials began requesting that residents and businesses conserve water as part of the “Water Stage 1,” which means the “potential for future drought conditions exist.”

Rhonda Haines, the city’s water services coordinator, said Stage 1 is considered an educational effort to get people, businesses and governmental bodies thinking about water usage.

“We’re being proactive,” she said. “We want to get the word out in public.”

Rich Tyhuis, the city’s operations manager, said he’s asked city departments to use less water. The water department is flushing water lines less often, for example, and the fire department is using less water during drills.

The city and Navy base depend on water that’s piped in from a plant on the Skagit River, which is currently 25 percent below average. The state’s snowpack is about 26 percent of normal, even with recent late-season snow storms in the mountains.

Yet the water plant manager isn’t very worried. William LaRue said the 127-mile Skagit River, which is the second largest river in the state, has about 3,000 square miles of “drawing area.”

“It’s a very large area,” he said, “and there’s still plenty of snowpack.”

The city of Anacortes owns the water rights and water plant, which provides water to 56,000 people in Skagit and Island counties. The oil refineries use about 70 percent of the water.

LaRue said the plant is being careful with water and he’s carefully monitoring snowpack and precipitation. Nevertheless, he said he won’t be really worried until the river is below five feet, as it was in the terrible drought of 1978. The river was at 8.7 feet Thursday, while the 30-year average for March is 11.6 feet.

LaRue pointed out that the Skagit River was at flood stage Jan. 19.

“The river is like a woman. It’s very fickle,” he said. “I say that because it can change very, very quickly.”

Haines said the city could move to Stage II if water levels continue to shrink. That stage is far more severe and includes things like watering only on even-or-odd days.

Outside of Oak Harbor and the Navy base, the rest of the folks on the island depend on underground water sucked up through wells.

Hydrogeologist Doug Kelly, who works for the county Health Department, isn’t very worried about the drought either. The island is made up of dense clay and rock; and the aquifer is most areas is several hundred feet deep. He said it takes an average of 30 years for a drop of rain to move from the surface of the ground down into the aquifer.

“The dry years and wet years get buffered or smoothed out,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the aquifer, especially saltwater intrusion. “We have very limited water resources here,” he said.

These problems occur, he said, because of the amount of water that is pulled from the aquifer, not because of the lack of recharge in drought years. Sometimes so much water is taken from ground water that seawater intrudes. The biggest areas of concern on the island, where saltwater intrusion is a problem, is the Kettles area west of Coupeville and Greenbank.

Kelly pointed out that the drought could have an indirect effect on aquifers if people start drawing more than usual to water their dry lawns or thirsty gardens.

One problem that may be caused directly by the drought is wild fires. Marv Koorn, chief for North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, said it’s too early to tell if this will be a fiery year.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “We have two new brush trucks for fighting brush fires.”

Like the other water experts, Kelly stresses the need to conserve water. For tips on water conservation — like fixing leaks and taking shorter showers — pick up a brochure in City Hall or check out www.oakharbor.org.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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