Guemes Islanders’ Drinking Water (and Health) Still at Risk

Another drilling rig arrives on Guemes Island Photo by Stephen Orsini

By Stephen Orsini

For Guemes Island residents, the only source of fresh water for most household use are three naturally occurring underground aquifers. Up until 1994, these aquifers supplied all the fresh water needed to support the families of Guemes. Everything changed when wells began to fail because of salt water intrusion. For the last 26 years, Skagit County has failed to implement steps needed to protect Guemes Island’s water supply.

Wells begin to fail in 1994

Seawater intrusion happens when too much water is pumped out of the fresh water aquifers. The major problem of seawater intrusion began on Guemes Island in 1994, with the failure of two wells serving the small community Group A water system (30 hook-up) known as Potlatch II. The wells failed due to excessively high chloride readings.  The State Department of Ecology issued a letter to Skagit County Health Department at that time recommending the cessation of further well drilling on Guemes Island until a plan could be worked out to protect the quality of water in its fresh water aquifers.  These aquifers were identified but not quantified through the US Geological Survey (USGS) study, the Hydrogeology of Guemes Island, completed in 1995.    Another USGS study, an accurate aquifer recharge area study, was proposed two years ago. 

No County funding for needed studies

These USGS studies require 60% funding from local agencies. In neither case has Skagit County Government agreed to participate in the studies by supplying matching funds. The failure of eight more wells on North Beach since the Potlatch failure, affected 19 homes. Skagit County has never followed a policy to review well drilling on Guemes, despite the cases of seawater intrusion or wells going dry during draught years.  Essentially, through a series of delays and convoluted language in the Skagit County Code, Guemes still has no plan for utilization of its fresh water aquifers.

The failed wells of the Potlatch II development were replaced by a $600,000 Seawater Reverse Osmosis system, which is now operated by Skagit County PUD.  It remains an expensive system to operate, with the base charge of $109/month to each customer on the system.  A County official may say that more people on Guemes could have hooked up to it, but none did due to the high cost and the hope that their wells would not succumb to seawater intrusion. 

Too many straws in the milkshake

Others, along North Beach, were left to find replacement sources of fresh water with no “help” from Skagit County.  The problem is that new wells continue to be drilled with no consideration of the cumulative withdrawal from the island’s aquifers. This is like adding more straws into the same milkshake with no concern for the volume in the shake.  This means also that senior water rights users who face seawater intrusion are losing their rights to the latest junior water rights straw into the limited milk shake.  Some 64 wells on Guemes have been compromised.

The County may also claim that it approached the City of Anacortes and they agreed to supply water to Guemes Island.  When I asked the City about this, their Public Works division said while they had the water, they did not see this as a feasible solution to the island’s water problems as the technical difficulties would make the cost of the water distribution extremely high. 

Number of wells on Guemes tripled

The USGS study, published in 1995, estimated 120 wells on Guemes Island.  Today there are over 360 wells on the island.  The County continues its policy of “non-regulation” of all new wells on Guemes.  They do issue building permits which for years mandated drilling a new well or hooking up to one of Guemes Island’s Group A or Group B small water systems.  The problem is that the new well has only to show that it has an adequate pump rate and that it produces good water.  There is no concern about the cumulative impact of new wells on the aquifers or the impact on nearby wells that may already have high chlorides, the indicator of seawater intrusion. 

Islanders propose solutions

A volunteer group of Guemes Islanders attempted to address this problem of new well drilling in 2016 with two proposals to modify the Skagit County Code through the mandated Growth Management Plan (GMP) required of each County.  These islanders proposed a code amendment that would make whole house rainwater catchment systems practical and affordable, even in lieu of a new well. A second code amendment  would require pre-inspection by a County hydrologist of a new well site, to determine its impact on nearby wells and the aquifer.  These two proposed amendments did not make the GMP docket in 2016 but were moved into a “work-plan” category for future study.  The islanders proposed these two code amendments again in 2018 and got them docketed. 

By February, 2020, the Skagit County Planning Commission voted to accept one code amendment on rainwater catchment, but proposed it be studied further before implementation.  The Planning Commission voted to deny the second amendment, the inspection of well sites, based on a legal opinion from the Skagit County Attorney that the County has no authority to regulate wells on Guemes Island, despite the fact that the island is recognized in their plan as a Critical Area, with seawater intrusion.  Their reasoning is that they can only issue permits for building where a well has been drilled or showing attachment to an existing system, and that the wells that are drilled unrelated to a building permit application are the responsibility of the Department of Ecology.

Guemes water supply still at risk

One County Commissioner recently wrote that the County does not regulate wells in the rest of Skagit County therefore it cannot regulate wells on Guemes.  Recent court cases have informed counties that they are responsible for the fresh water resources in their jurisdiction.  The unique geography of Guemes Island surrounded by seawater still is not recognized by Skagit County.  As of this writing, the second proposed amendment remains denied by Skagit Planning and well drilling continues unabated on Guemes.  

The islanders have pointed out that many other counties work with the Department of Ecology to regulate new wells to protect fresh water aquifers but these facts have not, to date, changed the County’s approach to well drilling on Guemes Island.

See Anacortes American June 3, 2020 for more info.


Stephen Orsini grew up on Guemes Island and, after working 30 years in the electrical power industry, retired to the same property he grew up on.  He has written free-lance articles published in National Fisherman, Sail, Sailing World, Oceans, Compass, LineTime and Private Pilot Magazines.  Growing up on an island, he was taught to husband its resources.

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