There are a lot of things to be said about water. It tastes good when you are thirsty; it is good for soaking off soil; it is hard to make tea or coffee without it; it is bad for ripening strawberry fields; it is good for backyard gardens; it ruins parades and garden weddings; it clears the air of smog and refreshes the green of Whidbey Island; it deters campers; it comes from the tap either hard or soft, fluoridated and chlorinated; it flows by in rivers clear and sparkling at their source, polluted at the delta.
For a requisite in life, it is pretty reliable. It comes in Boy Scout canteens, in glasses specially designed, in raindrops and in puddles and tides; in swimming pools and bathing beaches, in downpours and in gentle droplets. It dances on blacktop and swirls in fog; it rushes through storm drains and down hillsides. It can lie glassy and calm or rage in wild winter waves.
When mainland water was first piped to Oak Harbor, it was noticed most of all because it was different from island water. You betcha.
As a newcomer to Whidbey Island many years ago, we took the first drink of water and thought we were poisoned. We weren’t, because we lived to complain about the water. We had been used to Skagit River water, piped into tall wooden tanks on the hill, and thought all water tasted the same.
Washing and taking at bath with Whidbey Island water produced some consternation. Soap didn’t lather, it united with whatever kept the soap from soaping and the grime it set out to irradicate floated to the top of the washtub or bowl like an algaed lake.
Until we found there was a water softener on the market, our very existence was threatened. A neighbor explained that well water on Whidbey was hard and had to be softened and we would get used to it.
Our mother was made of sterner stuff when it came to resisting this wet stuff islanders called water. She refused to drink it. And in nearly 50 years, she probably didn’t drink more than a couple of quarts. She drank milk and orange juice and pop.
And she used cistern water and when that failed, she made her own cistern and collected rainwater for hair washing.
We thought Oak Harbor water was terrible until we drank some Coupeville water and then we knew we were favored. Coupeville water was also hard, but it had a distinctive odor. Sulfur, some said. Other areas of the island drew water from wells that were decidedly salty. But it was water and man (and woman) adapts to the environment, if the alternative is to become a desert salamander.
Having adapted, we were faced with another dilemma. We started to receive soft water from the Skagit River … a great flood of odd-tasting, flat water with no character.
Nothing no one could chew on after the first swallow. Tea tasted blah; coffee drinkers wondered who made this particularly horrible brew. No sulfur, no salt, no gritty, grinding minerals that had been supplied by island wells.
It caused a revolution. Coffee drinkers resorted to carbonated water. Water drinkers just gave up, flopping like flounders on a beach. It even was the start of a new business, bottling and selling Whidbey Island well water for diehards who just plain liked it. On the other hand, soap sales decreased. The fortunes of water, that’s what it was.
But nothing to get into a lather about.
Dorothy Neil has gathered and recorded Whidbey Island history for more than 50 years. Her books chronicle Whidbey life and times.