Confusion runs deep: Oft debated, island’s water supply is stable, ample according to latest research

There currently exists no credible scientific data that suggests Bainbridge Island is in danger of running out of potable water.

And yet, the issue of imminent drought was a dominant topic in the race for city council positions in November, and continues to be a favorite refrain of those standing in opposition to proposed development on the island, including the controversial Winslow Hotel. It’s an insistent rumor that, with no overt rebuttal from city representatives, has lingered despite readily available data to the contrary.

The subject of Bainbridge’s groundwater availability and aquifer levels has been simplified by those convinced of the island’s potential dehydration, both by those honestly concerned with good intentions but armed with inaccurate or incomplete information, as well as those who would use tentative indications and specious reasoning to reframe the admittedly complicated issues that surround the island’s true apex boogeyman: development.

Because, despite the arduous insistence of an especially vocal minority, and what some see as bureaucratic equivocating, the science simply doesn’t support worrying about water, experts say.

“The reality is that the deep aquifers on Bainbridge Island that the city wells and group wells draw from are not at risk at becoming depleted [or] going dry anytime in the near future,” said Alison “Ali” Dennison, senior engineering geologist for Aspect Consulting, the city’s longtime primary source for consulting hydrologists.

“In fact,” she added, “these wells are shown not to be decreasing in volume at all.”

A ‘sole source aquifer’

Groundwater is the only source of drinking water on Bainbridge Island, which is categorized a “sole source aquifer” since more than half of its water comes from the few principal underlying aquifers.

When one turns a tap on Bainbridge, you primarily get water from one of three places: the city, small private wells, or a third-party supplier (Kitsap Public Utility District being the most prominent of those).

As Bainbridge is an island, worries about the water supply are simple and obvious.

According to a 2017 report by the city’s Water Resources Program, “Primary groundwater-related concerns for the island are the risk of seawater intrusion (migration of saltwater into the freshwater drinking supply) and pumping rates above the aquifer system’s safe yield (amount of water that can be removed from the aquifer system without causing adverse effects).”

However, groundwater does not observe the same geological barriers other natural resources do. And despite being a semi-isolated patch of land, Bainbridge Island seems in no danger of running low on drinkable water, studies show.

Throughout the time covered by the report (2008 to 2017; “Groundwater Monitoring Program Early Warning Level Assessment,” prepared by the city’s water resources specialist Cami Apfelbeck and water resources technician Christian Berg) of all 86 public and private wells monitored by the city only one showed noteworthy change.

“Over the 10-year assessment period, most water level trends were relatively steady or increasing,” according to the report.

“Only one well, KPUD’s Island Utilities 1, appeared to exceed the safe yield Early Warning Levels. Water level declines in excess of the safe yield EWL have been noted since the city began assessing water level data from this well … Though no other wells exceeded the EWL, some individual wells showed slight to moderate water level declines over the last 10 years.”

The report advised “continued long-term monitoring in these wells,” but also pointed out that, “water levels in a well vary under different conditions.”

Smaller, shallower wells are more seriously impacted by fluctuating precipitation as well.

“The shallow wells, for example [those] that are used by one single-family residence, are at risk of becoming dry but more likely they are at risk of becoming contaminated,” Dennison said. “Groundwater recharge is not going to help [or] hurt our deep aquifer and to be honest, I don’t know that it is going to change the likelihood of the shallow wells drying up.”

Problematic, politically

Robert Dashiell, a retired Navy officer, former political office-seeker and longtime island government watchdog, who has made an extensive study of the published information regarding Bainbridge’s water availability, insists both seawater intrusion and well dehydration are unlikely given the existing data.

“There’s always going to be a well or two that goes dry,” he said. “It’s not that there isn’t water, just that the well isn’t deep enough. Because these shallow aquifers fill up amazingly fast … it fluctuates considerably.”

In a report he authored, “Bainbridge Island Groundwater Simplified,” which summarizes the findings of previous studies done by the U.S. Geological Survey and Aspect, Dashiell said that “even under the extraordinary high growth model, there would be sufficient water resources and no saltwater intrusion” for at least a century.

Though the subject is “insanely complicated,” Dashiell said Bainbridge’s water supply, which he claims is “arguably the most studied groundwater system of any island in the United States,” is ample and stable.

“Bainbridge Island has spent more than $1 million on aquifer studies in the last 10 years,” Dashiell wrote. “The city’s Water Resources library has in excess of 125 Bainbridge Island water studies and key well reports after the city hired a consultant (Battelle Institute) to go through the water library and eliminate non-essential reports and well logs.”

Same story, new voice

But, evidently, it’s still not enough.

The city is currently in the p0rocess of hiring a temporary staff hydrogeologist.

“With regards to the groundwater management plan, there isn’t much to share yet other than that we are very close to making a final decision on hiring a temporary (two-year) hydrogeologist who will be responsible for developing the plan,” Bainbridge’s Director of Public Works Chris Wierzbicki said.

Dashiell expects the new hire to reveal very little new information — and the city seems to agree.

According to the city’s own April 2019 “Groundwater Management Plan Proposed Project Scope” report: “The abundance of existing information on the island’s groundwater resource means that pulling together the recommended informational elements of a [Groundwater Management Plan] would be primarily a matter of information mining and not information development.”

Rather than being revelatory or definitive, Dashiell said the act of hiring of a hydrogeologist is a placating gesture on the city’s part.

“I think there are so many people on the island that are claiming that we have a water shortage that the way to do it is hire a hydrologist [because] I think there’s not a backbone in the city to stand behind the USGS report and the two studies that Aspect have done since then,” he said. “I look on hiring a hydrologist as probably … you’re talking more than a quarter of a million dollars for something that really doesn’t — I don’t even know what they’re going to do.”

The real concern?

Since the early days of the water debate, Dashiell said he has observed the insistence that Bainbridge is running out of water has been tied to concerns of rampant development and a desire by some for centralized control, both issues with concerned players who benefit from the issue remaining confused.

“I think it always has been,” he said. “There are a few people on the island who kind of think that we should have one water manager for the island, and it might come down [to being] between the [Kitsap] Public Utility District and the city, and both of them have about the same number of customers. We’ve already been through a cost comparison. In 2010, they were debating on who was going to run the water system. That went on for a year and half and that’s where the city hired the consultant from Seattle to evaluate what they could run it [at] because KPUD was certainly going to run it cheaper than the city was doing.”

According to city officials, the hiring for the hydrogeologist position is currently ongoing.

“We advertised the position,” Wierzbicki said, “and applications are due at the end of December.”

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