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Candidates address Vashon’s water future
Jenny Bell and Mark Graham are each running to replace Steve Haworth on the board of Water District 19, which provides water to about a third of the island, including the Vashon town core. At a recent community forum where candidates for the Vashon Park District board also spoke, and in interviews with The Beachcomber, the two contenders explained why their backgrounds and skills would benefit the water district, which hasn’t seen a new commissioner in four years.
Bell bills herself as a highly knowledgable business manager and water consultant who would bring a global perspective on water issues to the three-person board, and longtime islander Mark Graham emphasizes his experience working for the Burton Water Company and says he would put current water district customers first by pushing to improve the current system before releasing new water shares.
While both candidates stress the importance of conserving water and rewarding conservation, they differ when it comes to how excess water is used.
In a somewhat controversial move, Water District 19 released 30 shares to those on its long wait list last year — water available partly due to conservation by customers — and it is poised to do the same in 2013.
Bell says the district has an obligation to continue releasing shares when possible, while Graham suggests excess water should stay in the ground.
And while both contenders say they would oppose new well drilling projects such as the one currently proposed for Vashon School District property, Graham says he would push for a project that would increase output at the district’s water tower near town while Bell says more alternative water sources should be explored.
About 2,200 Vashon voters live within Water District 19 and are eligible to vote in the race.
Islander Jenny Bell is no stranger to water issues. While her day job is in accounting — she assists a forensic accountant who investigates mostly criminal fraud cases — she also consults for both residential and commercial water users through her own business, Watersmart.
The Australia native, who says she grew up drinking rainwater, has a master’s in business administration from Griffith University, in Brisbane, Australia, and a master’s in architecture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. At Cal Poly, her graduate thesis work addressed the issues facing administrators around potable water, including health issues, laws governing water supply and costs associated with managing water.
Bell helped establish Burn Design Lab, a Vashon nonprofit that makes safe and clean stoves for developing countries, and recently managed a short-term sustainable water project in a town in India.
“When it comes to my experience, it’s reams of information,” Bell said in an interview with The Beachcomber.
If elected, Bell, who moved to Vashon in 2000, said she would push the district to both continue releasing water shares and to diversify its water sources. There are currently about 100 people waiting for 200 shares on Water District 19’s wait list.
“I think it’s an obligation that has to be met,” Bell said of the wait list. “The speed that it has to be done is another question, but it’s an obligation we have to keep an eye on.”
Bell is a strong proponent of rainwater harvesting, she said, as well as other alternative water collection methods, such as greywater and reclaimed water — projects she believes could eventually be implemented at the district at no cost to customers.
“I’d definitely be putting up alternative solutions, instead of pulling more out of the aquifer, which is under a lot of stress,” she said.
Bell also said the district could do more in terms of education for customers and that she knows of ways to encourage greater water conservation.
“There are many ways to incentivize reducing per-person water use,” she said. “I’ve got a million ideas.”
She said she supported tiered rates to incentivize conservation, but was unsure if the district could lower its rates overall, saying she'd have to examine its finances.
“It could be tricky with existing systems in place,” she said.
A longtime islander and employee of the Burton Water District, Mark Graham says he has paid close attention to water issues on Vashon and has real-world knowledge about operating water systems.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, Graham, who is also a well-known local musician, questioned some of Water District 19’s past practices and said that if elected he would put existing customers first.
Graham, the sole employee of the privately owned Burton Water District since 2006, criticized some of Water District 19’s past drilling efforts that have failed to produce good water, particularly the Beall Well, which produces water with arsenic levels above EPA standards. The project was “kind of a controversial, unuseful project that got out of control,” he said.
If elected, Graham said, he’d prioritize getting the district off of Beall Well water, which the district currently uses during peak times of the summer after diluting it with water from other sources.
“There’s a lot of research that says arsenic at any level has an adverse effect on health,” he said. “I’d like them to use it only in an emergency situation, at the greatest dilution.”
And while Graham said he supports continued water conservation efforts, successful conservation shouldn’t necessarily result in new shares being released, he said. Rather, the district should focus on its maintenance and improvement projects, serving existing customers before offering new connections.
“The water does not just do nothing while it’s in the ground, either,” he said. “It actually promotes fish, the health of streams and the environment in general.”
Graham recently received his Backflow Assembly Tester Certification, and has what he calls a “checkered career” past that includes landscaping work, 15 years as a glassblower and helping open a business in Seattle called The Glass Eye.
Graham speaks of lowering rates for users such as farmers and the Vashon School District and a project he said could easily provide more capacity for Water District 19: the installation of a pump at the district’s million-gallon tank behind Sawbones.
The system currently relies on gravity and pressure to deliver water, Graham said, and the tank can only be emptied so far before a lack of pressure staves the flow. A new pump system would allow the district to pump 200,000 gallons more, he said.
“We’ve drilled five dry wells and this one arsenic (laced) well. ... There are other projects, including this pumping station, that would help with the need,” he said.