Tag Archives: Aquifers

Rainfall and aquifers keep drought away from the Kitsap Peninsula

UPDATE: April 24, 2015
Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, says in his blog that it is too early to be predicting severe drought in Western Washington this summer because of possible late-spring rains:

“I believe the media and some local politicians have gotten a bit too worried about our ‘drought.’ We have NOT had a precipitation drought at all….we are in a snow drought due to warm temperatures. The situation is unique and I suspect we will weather this summer far better than expected.”

—–

The word seems to be getting around about the record-low snowpack in the mountains, which could create a shortage of drinking water and even lead to problems for salmon swimming upstream. Read about Gov. Jay Inslee’s expanded drought emergency, issued today, as well as the last update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CK

Kitsap Peninsula and the islands of Puget Sound are in their own worlds, fairly insulated from what is happening in the higher elevations. In these lower elevations, the key to water supplies is rainfall, not snow, and the outlook for the year is normal so far.

As you can see from the charts on this page (click to enlarge), this year’s rainfall has been tracking closely the long-term average. If the rains are light and steady, much of the water will soak into the ground and recharge the aquifers where most area residents get their water. The aquifer levels tend to rise and fall over multiple years, depending on the rainfall.

Hansville

Casad Dam on the Union River, which supplies a majority of Bremerton’s water, filled in January, well ahead of schedule, said Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city. The dam is scheduled for a normal drawdown, and Kathleen said she does not expect any water shortage.

“We filled the reservoir fairly early this year,” she said. “We are looking pretty good for the summer.”

Holly

October, the first month of the water year, was unusually wet, Kathleen said. December precipitation also was high. The other months were fairly normal for precipitation.

Precipitation in the Puget Sound region is expected to be below average for June, July and August, according to models by the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Interestingly, large portions of the Central and Southwest U.S., Alaska and Florida can expect above-average precipitation. See U.S. map.

precip

Streams on the Kitsap Peninsula are fed by surface water flows and shallow aquifers. At the moment, most of the streamflows are near their historical average. That’s not the case for the larger rivers in the Northwest, which rush out of the mountains. Most are well below their normal flows, as shown by the map with the dots.

Low streamflows usually mean higher temperatures and stress for salmon. Low flows also can affect fish passage in some stretches of the rivers while also reducing spawning areas.

Streamflows

While things look fairly good on the Kitsap Peninsula now, things can change quickly. We have different vulnerabilities than elsewhere. Climate-change models predict that rains will grow more intense in the future without changing annual precipitation very much. That means more of the water will run off the land and less will soak in, potentially reducing aquifer levels over time. Managing those underground water supplies will become more and more critical.

Kitsap rains: not too much, not too little for salmon and aquifers

The on-and-off rains over the past two weeks are nearly perfect for both spawning salmon and for recharging shallow groundwater supplies, experts say.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek. Kitsap Sun photo
Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo

For October, total rainfall ranges from about 5 inches at Hansville to 12 inches at Holly, according to rain gauges managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District. Fortunately, those rains have not been delivered to us in only a few days.

The intermittent nature of October rains has allowed the streams to maintain their flows without flooding. They’ve also allowed infiltration into the ground without excessive runoff.

“It is the good kind of rain,” said Bob Hunter, interim manager of Kitsap PUD. “We’ve had a couple of days when we’ve had 2-plus inches, but we haven’t seen the streams flash.”

In other words, the streams have not risen excessively fast. Bob attributes that to how dry the ground was before the rains began. Soils were able to absorb much of the early rainfall before stormwater runoff began to increase. Pauses between the rainstorms allowed more of the water to soak into the ground.

“It just goes to show you the variability that we have around here,” Bob told me.

October marks the beginning of the 2015 “water year.” Although we are just a month into the start of the year, the rainfall has been closely tracking all-time highs at some rain gauges — including Holly, which has been monitored since 1999. (See charts below.)

Meanwhile, the rain pattern in October was nearly perfect for salmon, said Jon Oleyar of the Suquamish Tribe, who walks the East Kitsap streams to count migrating salmon as they arrive.

“It seems like we’ve had storms coming in every couple of days, so they are not right on top of each other,” Jon said. “That gives the streams some time to recede.”

When there is not adequate flow, the salmon often wait for the streams to rise. On the other hand, too much flow can wash salmon eggs out of the streambed.

Last week’s rains got the chum salmon moving into most of the East Kitsap streams, Jon told me.

“I checked Chico Creek on Wednesday, and there were almost 11,000 fish in there and going up about as far as they can get,” he said.

A good escapement for the Chico Creek system is between 12,000 and 15,000 chum, and there is still more than a month left — assuming a typical timing of the run, he said. But things are looking a little different this year, he noted, and the bulk of the run may have arrived already.

One indication that timing could be different this year is that Gorst Creek already has a fair number of chum salmon — perhaps 500 — yet the Gorst Creek run usually comes in later and continues well into December.

Is it possible that all or most of the salmon runs are coming in early? It’s a question that only time will answer.

Jon told me that he’s a bit water-logged at the moment, trying to count fish in the rain with the streams running high.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Jon said. “I have my fish up where they need to be, but it’s just hard to count them right now. If you’re a fish, this is really working for you.”

In the charts below, found on the Kitsap PUD’s website, you can see that October’s rainfall has been tracking the record high rainfall at these stations. Of course, the “water year” has barely begun, so anything can happen. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Rain-Holly

Rain-CK

Rain-Hansville

Can we escape water fights in Puget Sound?

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

This quote kept running through my mind as I completed the eighth part of our series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The latest installment, published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, is about water resources.

Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

It seems from my interviews that we should have enough water in the Puget Sound region to serve the needs of people while maintaining streamflows for fish and other aquatic organisms. It’s all about managing the resource, as I describe in the story.

What isn’t so clear to me is what we need to do about water rights, and this is where the real hangup can come in. People, governments and developers are allowed to reserve vast amounts of water for various uses, then they simply need to “use it or lose it.” That does not encourage conservation.

Water rights are considered a property right. Even if the Legislature had a plan for clearing up all the conflicts, it would not be easy. So far, the courts have been fairly strong in upholding individual water rights, even when the needs of society call for a new direction.

We’ve all encountered belligerent people who speak out loudly about their property rights. They’ll say, “This is my property, and I’ll be damned if I will have the government telling me what I can and cannot do with my property.”

Well, I’m sorry. But that battle is over. Zoning laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the use of property to protect the rights of the neighbors and the entire community.

But water rights are fairly entrenched and inflexible. It may be in the best interest of a community if a farmer could find ways to grow his crops with less water and share the surplus with a growing population. But is it fair to expect the farmer to give away his water rights for free, or should he be paid a sizable amount of money to set free the water he is holding hostage? Maybe he will need that water in the future, given the uncertainties of climate change.

And then there is the groundwater-permit exemptions for single family homes, allowing withdrawal of up to 5,000 gallons per day of water from a well — even though most families use only a few hundred gallons a day. In addition, the courts have ruled that farmers may use an unlimited amount of groundwater for watering livestock. All these water rights are recorded on the books, competing with other water rights — including instream flows to protect water in the streams for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Such water rights can be issued until there is no water left to appropriate or until there is a real water shortage and people generally agree that an adjudication is necessary. That’s when the courts begin to sort out who is using what water and for how long, trying to resolve the tangled claims and conflicts. While it may seem like the most reasonable solution, the adjudication process involves historical evidence and legal rulings that never seem to end. Such an adjudication has been underway in the Yakima basin for 40 years, according to the Department of Ecology website.

While water supplies in the Puget Sound region seem to be generally adequate for years to come, it is unlikely that people and governments will find a way to share this precious resource, setting the stage for ongoing legal battles.

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

While this quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, there is no evidence he ever said it. See the blog entry by Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers. Trying to prove that Twain never said it, however, is virtually impossible. It reminds me of the effort it may take to prove that one of our ancestors put his water rights to “beneficial use,” thus guaranteeing a quantity of water for all time.

Click on image to download the complete graphic
Click on image to download the complete graphic (PDF 2.8 mb).

Amusing Monday: Crack appears in Mexican desert

For this week, let’s call it “Amazing Monday.” When I first saw this video, I thought it was a fake animation for a science fiction film. But it turns out that it could be the answer to a troubling riddle: What is dryer than a desert?

The crack might also be the result of erosion from either an underground or surface channel following an unusually heavy rain. Despite the attention in Mexican and U.S. news outlets, I have been unable to find a good explanation.

The crack is said to be about three-fourths mile long and up to 25 feet deep. Some nice close-in photos were posted on the website of Excelsior, a daily newspaper based in Mexico City. They show people standing next to the giant fissure. (When watching the video, it’s worth blowing it up to full screen.)

In a Washington Post story last week, reporter Joshua Partlow quoted a geologist at the University of Sonora as saying the crack was probably caused by pumping groundwater for irrigation:

“The chair of the geology department at the University of Sonora, in the northern Mexican state where this ‘topographic accident’ emerged, said that the fissure was likely caused by sucking out groundwater for irrigation to the point the surface collapsed.

“‘This is no cause for alarm,’ Inocente Guadalupe Espinoza Maldonado said. ‘These are normal manifestations of the destabilization of the ground.’”

I think the geologist’s comments were meant to quell fear and speculation that started running wild when the crack first opened. While it may not be cause for alarm, I can’t believe that a crack this size — which has cut off more than one roadway — can be considered a good thing. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, and I’d like to learn more about it.

Kitsap’s future involves sharing water resources

Sharing water resources over a wide region is an idea that goes hand-in-hand with the Growth Management Act’s strategy of concentrating population in urban areas while protecting rural areas.

Of course, the first level of action is water conservation. But the ability to take water from one aquifer with an adequate water supply while protecting an overtaxed aquifer somewhere else makes a lot of sense.

That’s the idea behind building new pipelines to connect numerous water systems across a good portion of Kitsap County, including Silverdale. I described the latest steps in this plan in a story published in Monday’s Kitsap Sun.

Rainfall

Thirty years ago — before the Growth Management Act was passed — I recall talking to folks at the Kitsap Public Utility District, who declared that they were not in the land-use business and had no intention of getting involved in land-use battles. It was the job of the Kitsap County commissioners to decide where to put the growth, they said. The PUD staff and commissioners believed their role was to provide water for the growing population, wherever it goes. Check out this Kitsap Sun story from Feb. 25, 2001.

The state’s Municipal Water Law of 2003 clarified that the KPUD could deliver water from one place to another throughout its service area — which is all of Kitsap County. That allows water to be brought to developed areas in North Kitsap, where annual rainfall is half of what we see in the forested areas of Southwest Kitsap, where the Seabeck aquifer is located. (See annual precipitation map on this page.)

Many environmentalists have objected to certain portions of the Municipal Water Law, especially sections that included developers as municipal water suppliers — a move they say opens the door for abuse by financial interests.

One of the big concerns in water management is that pumping too much from an aquifer — especially a shallow aquifer — could disrupt the subsurface flows and springs that maintain stream levels in the summer and early fall. Adequate streamflows are needed for many species, not the least of which are salmon.

With adequate monitoring, as needed for planning, experts can track groundwater levels and streamflows to avoid such problems. Pipelines allow aquifers to be “rested” when needed. And elected PUD commissioners can be held accountable for their decisions regarding the regional management of water.

Future water supplies and the right to use the water constitute one of the most complicated issues in environmental law. A 2003 paper by the Washington Department of Ecology, called “Mitigation Measures Used in Water Rights Permitting” outlines some of the methods being used to protect natural systems and competing water rights. Mitigation for use of the Seabeck aquifer, which is an important water supply in Kitsap County, is described briefly on pages 19 and 20.

Kitsap study could quantify water supplies

Last week, I wrote about a meeting between water officials on the Kitsap Peninsula and hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS folks were floating the idea of studying the geology and available water supplies across the entire Kitsap Peninsula. (See story in Thursday’s Kitsap Sun.)

Surface waters of Kitsap.

I’ve covered water resources for years, and one of the big questions in the context of growth and development has always been: “Will the area have enough water to support growth.”

It’s a question I’ve asked local water managers since I arrived here in 1977. Their answer is generally something like this: “We should have enough water far into the future if we manage it carefully.” My latest story, published in the Kitsap Sun Oct. 3, described a relatively low-water year ending in October.

Most of Kitsap County’s water comes from wells. Consequently, managing water carefully means conserving what we’ve got, allowing our rains to soak into the ground and, in some contexts, being able to move water from areas of lesser supply to areas of greater supply. The map of surface waters at right can be found on the Kitsap County Web site.

Water is one of the big environmental issues of our time, and it will grow more important as long as the population continues to grow. Most people in the water business would like to know more about underground water supplies, so a study of the peninsula’s water resources would be valuable. Experts also realize that studies of this kind are only as good as the data that go in. That involves using measurements from hundreds of wells and well logs (soil layers) across the peninsula. You may want to check out similar studies conducted by USGS.

This topic also appears to be interesting to Kitsap Sun readers, because the story I wrote last week was rated the most popular on the Web site for two days running.

As with many environmental stories, the first comments to be posted seemed skeptical of the whole idea that caused me to write the story:

Crownvic (the first comment): “This is another one of these greeny try-to-scare-the-hell-out-of-you articles. First of all, almost all water wells pump from an aquifer 100 feet plus deep and have absolutely no effect on surface waters due to the impervious layers top and bottom…”
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