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Mayor Raymont C. Jackson: In response to Guest Column by Andy Haas

  • Written by Mayor Raymont C. Jackson

A hundred years ago, with the goal to stimulate economic development, stalwart men and  women came together to build the Town of Friday Harbor water system. To this day, the Town  operates its water system for the benefit of Town residents and businesses. The water  system is funded by the revenue they have generated over the years through connection fees  and monthly utility charges. 

But the Town water system was never intended to provide water for all of San Juan Island. Mr.  Haas rightly points out that there should be coordination between the County and the Town  on something as important as water, which is why Town staff met with County Health  Department staff to discuss the implications of limiting bulk water sales. We were assured  the Town is not the only source for bulk water sales, and that any Class A or B system is eligible to sell bulk water.

And in a joint meeting with the County Council on September 19,  2023, the Town raised our concern that the County was creating an inappropriate dependence on Town water by issuing development permits to properties that rely on hauled  water. We suggested the County discontinue this practice or that they at least require the  applicant to show there is a water purveyor ready to supply water to their property.

The  County rejected both suggestions, but assured us the Town is not expected to supply water  to properties with County-issued development permits, and that those property owners  would simply buy water elsewhere. 

The reasons for the Town limiting bulk water sales are several. Our water system is regulated  by the state Department of Health (DOH). We are required to submit a Water System Plan  every six years showing how we will meet our service area’s water demand. The Town’s  decision to limit bulk water sales was made, in part, as a result of the DOH asking the Town  to explain how we are planning for bulk water sales when our Water System Plans have  consistently stated that we do not wholesale water. In fact, we have never planned for bulk  water sales and are not in a position to do so.

Bulk water sales at the Town likely began before  water was a concern, but now that the Pacific Northwest is experiencing drought conditions, everyone including the DOH and the Town is starting to pay attention to where our water goes  and how we might be good stewards of this limited resource.  

Another reason for limiting bulk water sales pertains to our water rights. This issue was raised  twenty years ago in the San Juan County Water Resource Management Plan (2004): “[C]larification is needed to determine if [the Friday Harbor and Eastsound] water systems  must apply for a change to their water right in order to sell bulk water outside their service  area.”

A recent review of our water rights revealed that our place of use is “Town of Friday  Harbor and surrounding area served by municipal water system.” This means, except in an  emergency, our water rights only allow us to serve customers with a Town water connection.

And finally, the issue that pushed bulk water sales to the forefront is our treatment plant’s  capacity. The last two summers we have had to halt bulk water sales due to the inability of  our plant to keep up with demand. We are in the process of applying for a $3 million loan  from the state to add a 4th filter to the plant in hopes of extending our plant’s life. This would buy time to secure funding for an entirely new plant in the not-so-distant future. But right  now, our plant’s capacity has forced us to assess where we can find efficiencies.  

To some degree, Mr. Haas is correct that this is about money and control. Regarding money,  town ratepayers have borne the cost of constructing our water system, and will bear the cost  of this upgrade and the future new plant. Therefore, it is Town government's responsibility to  control how our water is used to benefit those ratepayers. That's why we are taking measures to extend the life of our plant as long as we can by limiting the demand on our system. 

Today, the Town of Friday Harbor water system serves our grocery stores, our schools, the  hospital, long-term care facilities, the library, the District 3 fire station, EMS, the County  Courthouse and County offices, and countless small businesses. In order to be able to do  so, we need to recognize when our plant is being taxed beyond its limits. Limiting water uses  outside the town -- including limiting water use at the fairgrounds except during the County Fair, and limiting bulk water sales except in the case of an emergency -- is the smart thing to  do for our long-term sustainability. 

A final note: The same day the Town Council adopted an ordinance limiting bulk water sales,  they also voted to continue to provide bulk water for the Hannah Heights neighborhood, as we have for the past year during their public health emergency. The Town’s ordinance allows anyone with a public health emergency to request an exception to our restrictions on bulk  water sales. This allows the Town to serve the larger community when absolutely necessary  and at the same time protect our assets, comply with our water rights, and satisfy the state  Department of Health. 

Respectfully submitted, 

Mayor Raymont C. Jackson