(Editor's Note: This is a letter by Susan Key to the BOCC regarding water issues in San Juan County. Susan Key is a hydologist and works as a Water Conservation Coordinator for the Town of Friday Harbor. The letter was delivered as testimony before the BOCC in May of 2000)

Board of County Commissioners

350 Court Street No. 1

Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Susan Key

90 Moss Garden Lane

Friday Harbor, WA 98250


May 23, 2000


Dear County Commissioners, Planning Commissioners, ladies and gentlemen, friends, neighbors and fellow community members,

I would like to take this opportunity to comment on San Juan County’s Comprehensive Plan 2000 and to commend staff, Planning Commission members, County Commissioners and especially members of the community who have participated in the public process. A lot of thought and hard work has gone into our plan, as is necessary because this document will affect the Islands for many years to come.

My educational and professional backgrounds are in geology (BS, University of Washington), hydrology and watersheds. My geology field course consisted of three months of intensive field training in the San Juan Islands. I consider myself fortunate to have lived and worked on San Juan Island for eight years. I was born and raised in Eastern Washington, working on a Columbia Basin farm that is still in my family. I attended Whitman College on scholarship, and have worked in all four corners of our fine state. I currently am the Water Conservation Program Coordinator for the Town of Friday Harbor.

I am not representing the Town of Friday Harbor. I share my views as an Island resident, not in my capacity as an employee of the Town.

The county’s Comprehensive Plan is an opportunity to plan for "sustainable growth." There are many issues that factor into the definition of sustainability and consideration must be given to them all. I would like, however, to focus on only one such issue — WATER.

We all know how important water is. Humans can survive for only three days without drinking water, and water is essential to all life. Water makes up a significant part of our county, indeed we are surrounded by it, but we cannot drink untreated salt water.

We live in the rain shadow of the Olympics, and along with Whidbey and the Sequim area, have seasonal dry periods. There is a species of cactus that is found on the exposed southwestern slopes of Lopez, San Juan, Yellow and other islands.

Water can be considered a limiting natural factor. We must have it and there is only so much to go around. Its availability must be considered when planning for sustainability. Which begs the question, where does our water come from and how much is available?

Twelve thousand years ago, Puget Sound was covered by ice up to a mile in thickness. When the glaciers melted, runoff "supercharged" the area with groundwater, including the San Juan Islands. Every available crack, pore space, and "permeable" deposit was filled with water. The melting glaciers also left the wetlands, ponds and lakes that we see remnants of today.

The Islands differ from mainland Puget Sound in that we have no river systems supplied by snow melt. The few year round streams in the Islands do not bring in water from somewhere else. Our water supply is "recharged" or replenished solely by precipitation.

Vegetation plays a key role in this process. The amount of vegetation, or "vegetative surface area" is directly proportional to the amount of water that "infiltrates," or percolates into the groundwater system. Yes, plants and trees use water, but in general they funnel far more into the water system, as well as preventing erosion and filtering or cleaning the water supply.

Sediment from erosion plugs up the groundwater system, closing pathways and preventing "recharge." Compaction or crushing of the relatively thin and fragile Island soils also prevents recharge. "Impervious" areas such as pavement, roofs and roads do not allow recharge.

Within the last 100 years, human activity has altered the previous balance of the water cycle. Two factors are significantly impacting our water supply — increasing human use of water and decreasing recharge due to vegetation removal, soil compaction, clogging by erosion, and impervious surfaces. The result is a double whammy to the county’s water supply. In short, we’re taking more and more out, and there is less and less going in. As our population increases, so does this double whammy effect.

Remember, unlike mainland counties, we have no rivers that bring water in from elsewhere. We have no seasonally melting snow pack. What we do have are surface and ground waters that are being increasingly tapped for human use. We also have the distinction of being one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Remember the double whammy effect.

Currently, the county’s planning process gives three choices. A maximum buildout population of 57,546 year round residents occurs in Option A, a minimum buildout population of 41,132 occurs in Option C, and Option B falls in between. The entire county currently has an estimated year round population of 12,700 and an economy that is dependent to a great extent on yearly "visitor" seasons. This ‘season’ happens to correspond to low rainfall months, during which our daily population in some areas increases by 450% (1995 WA State Ferry ridership data to Friday Harbor) to 5274% (1995 Port of Friday Harbor boater overnight data).

Option A would increase our year round population by a factor of 4.53, and don’t forget the seasonal "visitors," upon which a great deal of our local economy depends. Option C would increase our year round population by a factor of 3.23, with additional increases during the low rainfall months. Both residents and visitors need water. Remember, no rivers and no snow pack. Remember the double whammy effect.

There is mounting evidence that water is in relatively short supply in San Juan County. The Town of Friday Harbor has experienced three 50-year droughts in only 20 years, necessitating the approval by the Town Council of a "Water Shortage Response Plan," and the funding of a Water Conservation Program. Saltwater intrusion is a growing concern in areas of Lopez and San Juan Island. Countywide, wells are slowing in their gallons per minute production rates.

There are alternatives, that used appropriately will help stretch our water supply, yet they all come with a price tag:

Municipal water systems such as Eastsound, Roche Harbor and the Town of Friday Harbor must consider cross-connection concerns. In other words, you don’t want rainwater complete with bird poop, pine needles, pollen and other undesirables contaminating the system’s treated water supply. To augment regular supplies with cachement, a whole new filtration system and set of transmission pipes must be installed, the cost of which would substantially increase water rates.


To address the second part of the initial question - how much water is there? We don’t know. The county’s Department of Health and Community Services has received funding from the Department of Ecology to conduct a watershed assessment involving an accounting of all water rights, coupled with an attempt to measure how much water is available.

Yet this is a complex issue. Again, we’re not like the mainland. A lot of our water is stored underground, and the bedrock geology of the Islands is legendary in its complexity. We are not like the Plains states where layers of strata slope down from the Rockies housing the massive Ogallala acquifer that supplies several states with water (and though massive, even this supply is running low in areas of the Mid West).

Nor does our groundwater come from Mt. Baker or the Olympics. There is no pathway for that to occur because our bedrock geology is folded and faulted, overthrust and underthrust, squished and squeezed, warped and convoluted. Pieces of continental crust are mishmashed in with pieces of oceanic basalt. Varying rock types abound in what has been called "fruitcake" geology.

Because of this complexity, what we have is indeed a ‘collective’ water supply. Trout Lake may well be connected by underground pathways, such as cracks in the bedrock and permeable fault zones, to surrounding wells. On the one hand it replenishes those wells during periods of high rainfall, on the other hand, the lake can be depleted by use of the connecting wells during periods of low rainfall.

Your well may be connected to your neighbors well, which may be connected to….you get the picture. How you use your water may well affect your neighbors. In short, our surface and ground water are interconnected, forming a dynamic system that is part of the overall "hydrologic cycle." Once again, we find ourselves all in this together.

So where does this leave us? With a limited supply of fresh water and a growing population. With unanswered questions as to exactly how much water is available for human use, and answers that are not going to come easy.

We all need water. We currently have 12,700 people living in the county year round augmented by an economically necessary seasonal population bulge that occurs when rainfall is typically lowest. Our water supply is recharged solely by precipitation. We have already experienced "drought" conditions in many areas of the county.

Given these very real concerns regarding that most basic of natural resources — WATER - I suggest that we choose none of the Options presented to us. Instead, let us use what has been referred to as the "Smart Growth Plan" that advocates a more balanced and sustainable approach to growth, with a year round, countywide buildout population of 33,000. This approach is certainly not ‘no growth,’ as 33,000 — 12,700 = 20,300 additional residents. And don’t forget the growing number of visitors, especially as shoulder seasons extend.

Meanwhile, let us all do our best to conserve. "Water is a precious Island’s resource, please use it wisely."

Thank you for your consideration, I support you all in coming up with a plan based on sustainability that is acceptable to us all.


Sincerely and with respect,




Susan Key


PS - If I may, I would like to recommend "Better not Bigger: how to take control of growth and improve your community" by Eben Fodor. This book is excellent in that it offers solutions. The reference section is rich in additional information and there is a contact list "Organizations Concerned with Land Use."

The San Juan, Lopez and Orcas libraries all have copies for public use. And, of course, if you purchase this fine book, please do so at your favorite local bookstore.



Alt, David D. and Donald W. Hyndman, "Roadside Geology of Washington," Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1984

Brandon, Mark T., Darrel s. Cowan and Joseph A. Vance, "The Late Cretaceous San Juan Thrust System, San Juan Islands, Washington," Special Paper 221, The Geological Society of America, 1988

Earth Tech, "Draft Supplemental EIS, San Juan County Plan for Activity Centers on Orcas and Lopez Islands," SJC Planning Department, March 2000

Economic and Engineering Services, "San Juan Island Critical Water Supply Service Area Coordinated Water System Plan, Regional Supplement," adopted by the San Juan Island Water Utilities Coordinating Committee, revised September 1997

KCM, "Town of Friday Harbor Comprehensive Water System Plan Update," February 1997

KCM, "Town of Friday Harbor Trout Lake Capacity Analysis," June 1994

Kruckeberg, Arthur R., "The Natural History of Puget Sound Country," University of Washington Press, 1991

McKee, Bates, "Cascadia," McGraw-Hill Company, 1972

Orr, Elizabeth L. and William N., "Geology of the Pacific Northwest," McGraw-Hill Companies, 1996

Ritter, Dale F., "Process Geomorphology," Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1978

Russell, Robert H. editor, "Geology and Water Resources of the San Juan Islands, with contributions by the USGS, Water Supply Bulletin No. 46, Department of Ecology, 1975

SJC Health and Community Services, "Part 1, San Juan County Watershed Management Action Plan," Agency and Public Review Draft, December 1999

SJC Health and Community Services, "Part 2, San Juan County Watershed Management Action Plan, SJC Characterization Report," December 1999

Town of Friday Harbor, "Water Shortage Response Plan," September 1988