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Water permit backup hits Silverdale

The ongoing drought and a state moratorium on water rights is affecting Silverdale Water District No. 16 and its customers.

The district, which pumped 570 million gallons of water in 2001 through September, has faced serious supply difficulties.

In an effort to alleviate those problems, the district has invested several million dollars into building four wells during the past decade. They include two major-production wells and two satellite wells, which serve a small number of customers in a specific location.

“When we drill a well and build a pump station, we can easily invest $1 million into a site,” Silverdale Water District General Manager Morgan Johnson said. “We’re not talking nickels and dimes here.”

‘SUPPLYING THE DEMAND’

As Silverdale has grown, the need for water has increased exponentially. The district, which is the largest distributor of water in Kitsap County, has been hampered by the state Department of Ecology’s sluggish permitting process.

“There has been a lot of money and effort invested into these (wells),” Johnson said. “I can’t say they are not being used. We are supplying the demand. If that means to produce water from wells that aren’t certificated, then we’re going to produce that water.”

The district’s Westwind Well, built in 1991, has not been certified for use by the Department of Ecology. But to keep up with demand, it has been used to pump more than 3.2 million cubic feet of water this year.

It is a misdemeanor in Washington to use, store or divert any water until after a permit has been issued. Those found guilty of taking water without a permit can be fined $100 per day.

The district isn’t alone in its frustrations.

Kitsap Public Utility District No. 1 has a similar story about a well it built six years ago near Kingston.

The PUD submitted a number of change applications on the new well to the state Department of Ecology, according to Assistant General Manager Bill Hahn. But so far, DOE hasn’t allowed the district to turn on the pumps. Until then older, smaller systems continue to supply the area’s water.

LACK OF STAFF, DIRECTION

The permitting problem stems from a state-wide moratorium on water rights applications adopted by the state Department of Ecology in 1999.

Dan Swenson, water resource program supervisor for the Northwest Regional office of the state Department of Ecology, said the moratorium was enacted due to lack of staff, as well as a lack of direction from the Legislature.

“There’s more work than we could possibly do,” said Swenson, adding that his staff of 19 covers not only Kitsap but King, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties.

The Department of Ecology has a backlog of 5,389 applications for new water rights, and 2,085 change applications. Swenson said 203 new applications and 89 change applications are pending in Kitsap County.

“The most difficult issues have been during the past 20 years,” Swenson said. “It is difficult to deal with these issues since there is a lot of science involved.”

Water purveyors in Washington have been able to accommodate growth through increased conservation and efficiency, but have run out of new water sources, according to Hal Schlomann, executive director of the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts.

“We have utilities in the central Puget Sound region that have squeezed as much efficiency as they can out of their systems,” Schlomann said. “There are wells in the ground that can fully accommodate that growth but aren’t being used.”

To simplify the process, the state Senate passed a bill this year which separated new water rights from changing or transferring existing water rights. Change requests now take precedence over new applications.

“The general thinking is that change applications are easier to than new applications,” Swenson said. “The expectation is that within three to four years, we will eliminate the change backlog.”

Kitsap County is among the jurisdictions where DOE started to address change orders. Yet Hahn said “the water bill passed this year during the legislative session didn’t help much in Kitsap County.”

Everyone involved in water issues agreed that help from the state Legislature is required to ease the process.

According to the state’s Web site, a group of state legislators, government advisors and other officials is working to draft water legislation for the 2002 legislative session.

The group plans to address maintaining fisheries runs, water for growing communities, “use it or lose it” policies regarding chronically unused water rights, and funding for water storage and drinking-water systems.

Schlomann said water must be a top priority for the Legislature.

“Water is important,” he said. “Water is an issue that everyone needs to pay attention to.”

WHERE DOES THE WATER COME FROM?

The Kitsap Peninsula is different from its neighboring counties, in that a high percentage of the water consumed by people here comes from underground aquifers.

Eighty percent of the water used in Kitsap County comes from wells and groundwater sources through more than 1,100 public water systems and about 20,000 private wells. The Silverdale area is totally supplied by wells, while Bremerton receives most of its water from a reservoir on the Union River.

Most other counties in the Puget Sound region receive water from a mix of rivers, reservoirs and groundwater sources.

“We are totally dependent on rainfall,” said Bill Hahn of the Kitsap Public Utility District. “We’re pretty much an island when it comes to our water supply.”

Hahn said a 1997 Kitsap PUD study showed the county receives 316 billion gallons of rainfall a year. County residents use 15 billion gallons of that annually.

Having water supplied by aquifer means Kitsap County is less likely to feel the effect of a drought.

“Groundwater sources are slower to react to drought than surface water sources, such as Bremerton,” said Mike Means of the Bremerton-Kitsap County Health District. “But if we see a couple more years of drought, then we might see some impact.”

The aquifers provide a base flow to streams, including the majority of total flow during the dry summer months, according to Hahn.

That water allows migrating salmon to make their way up and downstream and is a sticking point for tribes, environmentalists and utilities alike.

“It’s an extremely complex issue,” said Hal Schlomann, executive director of the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts. “We need to provide for the economic level of the state while creating an environment for the fish that supports them as well.”

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