Community

District 19 proposes new well for schools

Water District 19 hopes to dig a well on the Vashon School District campus, a move that would give the school district a break on its high water bills and free up water the agency could then issue to those on its lengthy waiting list.

Steve Haworth, president of the Water District 19 board, said the shallow well proposed for the northeast corner of the campus near McMurray Middle School would pose no risk of inflating customer rates as past projects have. Haworth presented the proposal at Thursday’s Vashon School Board meeting.

“We think it’s a win for you — we think it’s a win for us,” Haworth told the five-person board.

The school board will discuss the proposal at its Oct. 11 meeting and might vote on it as early as Oct. 25.

Under the proposal, the water district would cover 75 percent of the cost of the new well — estimated at $250,000 to $400,000 — and the school district would cover 25 percent,  up to $75,000. In return the school district, the largest water consumer on the Island, would receive a reduced irrigation rate, saving the district about $20,000 a year in water costs.

Superintendent Michael Soltman, in an interview, said he was hesitant to support the proposal before examining the costs and benefits, but noted that the $20,000 the school district would save annually could be put back into instructional programs.

“I think there’s a possibility it would be a good benefit to the school district from that standpoint,” he said.

Water District 19 has struggled with a water shortage for years — leading to what is now a 15-year moratorium in water shares — in part because it can’t meet peak demand with its current water capacity and hasn’t had the funds or state approval to install more wells. The water district is the largest water purveyor on the Island, with boundaries that extend north to near The Harbor School and as far south as Quartermaster Harbor, taking in all of Vashon town.

But because District 19 isn’t fully using its water right at its main well field, which hasn’t produced as much as expected, Haworth said, those rights could be transferred to a new well at the high school.

Such a development would be significant, Haworth said: A new well at the high school would free up 30 to 50 water shares. Earlier this year, the district temporarily lifted the moratorium when it issued 30 new shares — units derived in part from bringing a new well online and in part from Islanders’ increasing conservation of water.

Still, the district currently has a list 300 shares long to be issued to about 90 different properties. Some on the list are requesting water shares for intriguing and worthwhile projects such as low-income housing, Haworth said.

“I do feel a responsibility … to help people get water and build the houses they want to build,” Haworth told the school board.

The revenue the water district would generate from selling the new shares at $10,000 apiece, Haworth said, would cover District 19’s share of the well’s cost and possibly fund restoration of some deteriorating water mains as well.

The school district, Haworth noted, has been working to decrease its water costs since 1997. What’s more, over the past half-dozen years, the school district’s rates have increased as Water District 19 has altered its rate structure, charging more to its highest users in an effort to encourage conservation.

“I think this will help (the school district). … I think it’s a good thing.” Haworth said in an interview. “The water district board is fully behind it, and I anticipate the school district will be behind it as well.”

Some Islanders, however, say they’re skeptical of promises made about any new wells. They point to to District 19’s history of digging expensive wells that didn’t produce as expected, inflating rates and racking up thousands of dollars of debt that are still being paid off by the district. Most recently, the Beall Well was completed at nearly twice its projected cost. The well, which supplies less than half of District 19’s water right for that location, was also found to contain high levels of arsenic, requiring its water to be treated.

“I understand what’s driving (the proposal),” said Martin Koenig, a Water District 19 customer who pays close attention to water issues on Vashon. “But as a rate payer it’s a concern to me because I’ve seen so many of those rosy pictures get a little cloudy, and water is always a risk.”

Frank Jackson, a former District 19 commissioner, said he too was concerned about the risks involved in drilling another well. He suggested the district’s resources might be better spent on improving services. Problems with water pressure, for instance, have long plagued the water district, he said.

“The customers have been paying for these ... wells, millions of dollars to look for expansion, and at the same time there are problems with water distribution,” he said.

School board members at Thursday’s meeting also questioned the rationale of digging a new well.

“What if you put in the whole shebang here and it doesn’t work?” asked Laura Wishik, a board member.

Haworth, however, said the proposed well is less risky than those District 19 has dug in recent years. The well would be much shallower, tapping into the Island’s principal aquifer rather than the less reliable deep aquifer. A King County study upheld by the state Department of Ecology says there is likely water at that location, and a test well costing $20,000 to $40,000 would assess the proposed area’s output and water quality before well construction.

“The dollar amount is (smaller),” Haworth said after the meeting. “I think it’s a risk worth taking to help the school district.”

School board chair Dan Chasan said after the meeting that he and other board members wanted to explore the specific financial terms of the proposal and understand the risks involved for the district before putting the proposal to a vote.

Board member Steve Ellison said he too wanted to learn more but thought the well could be a good deal for the district. He noted that $20,000 a year — the amount the district could save in annual water costs — amounts to about one-third of a teacher’s salary.

“I do like the creativity and innovative thinking,” he said.

 

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