Legislature Funds Guemes Island Aquifer Study

Governor Vetoes Aquifer Study Funding

Governor Inslee issued the following April 4, 2020:

Circumstances have changed dramatically since the 2020 supplemental operating budget was approved by the Legislature last month. The COVID-19 pandemic is having catastrophic effects on the health and welfare of Washingtonians. It will also have a major impact on the economic health of our state. My staff and I have conferred with Democratic and Republican leaders in both the House of Representatives and Senate, and we all agree that we must prepare now for the effects ofthe lost revenue that will result from this pandemic.

The supplemental budget includes task forces, work groups, reports, pilot programs, new programs, and program expansions that would be smart investments for the state under normal circumstances. However, under the extraordinary situation we now face, we cannot afford all of them at this time.

For this reason, I have vetoed the following sections:

Section 302(33), page 323, Department of Ecology, Follow-up Analysis of Guemes Island
Aquifer Study.

A parallel groundwater study for the San Juan Islands was also vetoed:  Section 302(30), page 322, Department of Ecology, San Juan County Study on Water Resources.

USGS Study of Guemes Island Aquifer Recharge Areas

On the last day of its recent session, the Washington Legislature approved a request from the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee (GIPAC) for $80,000 to fund a US Geological Survey (USGS) study of Guemes Island aquifer recharge areas.  GIPAC has been working to secure this funding since November 2018, and is grateful to 40th District Senator Liz Lovelett and her staff for winning final approval. GIPAC very much appreciated funding pledges of more than $20,000 for the USGS study made by island residents but now, with the Legislature's vote, we will not need them. 

USGS hopes to begin work on the study this summer, but timing will be dependent on when funds are actually received by USGS, as well as how long work interruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic continue.  USGS anticipates that the study will take about 18 months, of which approximately three weeks will be field work on Guemes.  As longer-term residents may remember, USGS completed a baseline hydrogeological study of Guemes Island groundwater in 1995, based on data from 80 wells on the island.  USGS hopes to include data from about 100 island wells this time, including revisiting as many of the 80 wells previously studied as possible. 

As plans firm up, GIPAC will continue to inform islanders and enlist their support in adding more wells to the study for collecting needed well data.  The larger the amount of well data collected across the island, the better USGS and islanders will be able to understand groundwater levels, flows, and changes over time. 

GIPAC is a permanent, nonprofit organization of community-elected volunteers that is mandated by resolution of the Skagit County Board of County Commissioners to monitor the Guemes Island Subarea Plan, a major goal of which is to protect the island's fragile groundwater resource.  Continued growth and development on Guemes Island since the 1994 USGS study, particularly in shoreline areas, has led to the failure of nearshore wells due to seawater intrusion, wells going dry, and degradation of the island's federally-designated sole source aquifer. GIPAC requested the follow-on USGS study to scientifically determine the island's aquifer recharge areas, quantify an updated water budget, and provide an accurate potentiometric water-level analysis and water-table map of the island's two main aquifers. (A potentiometric surface is the imaginary plane where a given reservoir of fluid will "equalize out to" if allowed to flow).  These metrics are necessary for long-term planning to protect groundwater resources on Guemes Island, the primary source of potable water for island residents and visitors. 

USGS strongly supported this application and will fund $53,000 for the study.  Under their rules, USGS required $80,000 of matching funds before proceeding with the study.  The legislature has now agreed to provide that matching funding.

In 1994, the Washington Department of Ecology advised the Skagit County Department of Health to curtail well drilling on the north end of Guemes Island, one of the most populated sections of the island, which has numerous 50-foot shoreline lots that were originally platted as "camping lots." These lots were grandfathered in as legal building lots when the current zoning regulations were amended to require a minimum lot size of 2.5 acres.

Since 1995, 250 new wells have been drilled on Guemes Island and the island has experienced well failures, impacting more than 64 residences, due to seawater intrusion on its North and West Beach areas. In 2010, Skagit County indicated that Guemes Island had a capacity for approximately 860 new homes that could be built on the island. If continued well pumping exceeds capacity from the island’s aquifers, seawater intrusion could contaminate island groundwater irreversibly for all island residents. The Growth Management Act mandates that aquifers used for potable water be protected from seawater degradation. To sustainably manage the island’s groundwater resource, GIPAC believes an analysis of water budget components, such as will be provided by the USGS study, is a necessary next step in documenting the future availability of good-quality groundwater for island residents.

Although Guemes Island has the only federally designated sole source aquifer in Skagit, Whatcom, and San Juan Counties, there are numerous undesignated sole source aquifers among the residential islands in those counties. They also need scientific studies that will identify recharge areas and estimated rates of recharge to those aquifers to help protect their limited water resources as population and development growth increases.  Because USGS completed a baseline hydrogeological study of Guemes Island in 1995 and because the application for the new and more thorough study is complete and “shovel ready,” the USGS Guemes Island study should serve as a pilot project that could benefit other sole source aquifer areas in Washington State facing seawater contamination and the effects of continuing droughts.