Counties, cities take on large-scale water planning

Water issues have always seemed to boil down to a faceoff of people versus fish.

However, armed with more than $800,000 in state grants, Kitsap County — as part of the Kitsap Peninsula Watershed Planning Unit — is trying to find a way to keep both sides happy and even make water rights easier to obtain in the process.

County water management planners believe such a compromise can be struck, even given the restrictions of the project: If even one stakeholder in the unit — city, county or utility — disagrees, the compromise is void.

According to a state bill passed in 1998, local jurisdictions can ask for money to study their water resource inventory areas, more commonly known as WRIAs. The WRIAs, which serve as a way for the state to break down the complexities of water recourses into manageable portions, are based on topography, not political boundaries. For that reason, the state mandated any studies done or agreements made concerning a WRIA must be undertaken collectively by every political body contained in the area.

In Kitsap’s case, our WRIA — No. 15 — is shared by Vashon Island’s portion of King County, the Key Peninsula’s portion of Pierce County, Gig Harbor and a northern chunk of Mason County.

The usual breakdown of power, nevertheless, doesn’t apply. Under state watershed planning guidelines, King and Pierce counties enjoy none of their usual clout — each gets one seat at the table and one vote.

“We’re all equals in this,” said Kitsap County natural resources coordinator Keith Folkerts.

Even so, Kitsap County is the largest landholder in WRIA No. 15 and therefore is responsible for administering the grant money for the project. Over the past four years, the county has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to have consultants study and identify nearly every detectable drop of water in the WRIA.

Together with the other stakeholders, the county must then help draft up a water management plan that points out which spots can support additional wells, ways to improve water quantity and quality in overtapped regions and improve the health of local streams, lakes and rivers.

The potential payback for all this work is considerable — the Department of Ecology has said these WRIA plans, once complete, will speed up water rights approval and make it easier for cities and water districts to get the new wells they need.

Currently, DOE has a 10-year backlog of water rights applications and few other means of speeding things up.

“I think it was recognized that there was a log jam,” said Folkerts, explaining Ecology’s interest in the WRIA plans. “Ecology’s executive branch is a big player in this.”

The hope is that with each WRIA doing its own management plan, DOE won’t have to spend so much time and energy figuring out what’s there.

Although Ecology is under no mandate to use the information, Folkerts said the pile of pending applications has gotten so immense it’s unlikely the department would ignore such an obvious timesaver.

The planning project has also given local jurisdictions the opportunity to see exactly how complex water management can be.

Folkerts said the first and most important epiphany the planning group had was that most existing aquifer maps are woefully inaccurate. There also wasn’t much existing data on streamflow or a clear breakdown of where precipitation ended up — on the surface or underground.

Trying to patch the holes has become a full-time job for the consulting teams, but Folkerts said the new information they’ve gathered has been very helpful.

Kitsap’s geology supports three types of underground aquifers — shallow, sea-level and deep. The shallow aquifers typically support the area’s streams by adding water from the ground up. Sea-level aquifers support the vast majority of wells but, as recent data has shown, that’s presented a problem for those living along the waterfront.

Seawater incursion, created by sea-level aquifer wells drawing too much water out and, as a result, distorting the “bubble” that separates freshwater deposits from adjoining bodies of saltwater.

If the bubble gets moved too much, the well can actually start “sucking” saltwater into the freshwater aquifer, making the groundwater unusable.

Such incursions are most common on Bainbridge Island and in North Kitsap, but some South Kitsap wells have tested positive for low levels of saline. The saline levels do not yet represent a health risk, Folkerts said, but could become critical if the incursions are allowed to continue.

“There are some wells that have been abandoned because of saltwater intrusion,” he said.

Other studies have revealed new information about Kitsap’s streams that may demonstrate why even unpolluted streams have a hard time supporting stable fish populations.

WRIA No. 15 is unique among most western Washington WRIAs in that it is not supported by snowpack or glacier melt. As a result, surface water flow varies widely, swinging from a trickle in mid-summer to an often-scouring deluge during the winter months.

The inconsistency makes it hard for fish to thrive, even if the stream is in otherwise perfect condition.

As part of a proposed solution to this problem, the consultants have suggested piping “gray water” — partially treated wastewater — into a catchbasin above the streams and letting the water percolate in.

The project would use effluent from sewage treatment plants that would otherwise just be dumped out into Puget Sound. It would also be a low-impact way of rehydrating streams by filling them through the shallow aquifers — a bottom-up method that would avoid the bank erosion common to top-down systems.

The plan predicts water flows could increase approximately 500,000 gallons a day during the summertime, with some streams retaining more water and some retaining less.

The proposal is pricey, though. The worksheets developed by the consultants listed costs between $5 million and $10 million in most cases depending on the stream. The worksheets also included cost-benefit analyses that prioritized the streams included in the study, placing those that were most cost-effective at the top.

South Kitsap’s two candidates — Salmonberry Creek and Karcher Creek — came out in the middle and dead last, respectively.

“If there is a pilot project, it would most likely be in Central Kitsap,” Folkerts said.

Other issues, such as finding abundant groundwater prime for future tapping, still require more work.

So far, the group’s conversations have reportedly been polite. The unit consists of 17 delegates representing governments and taxing districts — four counties, five cities, four water districts and four tribes — and 12 private stakeholders representing regular citizens from each county plus business, environmental, recreation and timber interests.

A DOE representative also attends every meeting.

Folkerts said, for the most part, the participants have accepted the restrictions they must work under and have focused on coming up with creative solutions that keep everyone as happy as possible. Only the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners, he said, has raised any major objections to the restrictions themselves and, as a private stakeholder, the agency does not hold specific veto power.

The private stakeholders, Folkerts explained, can veto any action taken by the group, but only if a majority of them agree.

The planning group is still in the information-gathering stage, Folkerts said, but subcommittees have already started to type up draft sections for consideration.

The group must have the plan finished and at least up for approval by the four counties by April 2005 — the point at which the grant money expires.

Folkerts is optimistic the plan can be finished by this fall, so long as no serious objections are raised. He said he hopes to hear more input from the general public before that point — the planning unit meetings are open to the public and, although they have no formal standing, Folkerts said, visitors are welcome to speak.

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