The island’s largest water purveyor has had a change in leadership, and now islander Jim McRae is at the helm of Water District 19.
McRae stepped into the position of general manager last fall, but said he spent the first few months of his tenure there working internally, focused on the district’s people and equipment, and is now looking more externally to the community at large. Vashon is served through a patchwork of water systems, but Water District 19 is the one most frequently in the island’s news, as it has more than 1,400 accounts and serves Vashon’s downtown business district as well as the public schools. Last month, in a wide ranging conversation, McRae shared his background, which includes a lifelong interest in water, and some of what he considers the most important tasks at Water District 19, including conservation and improving the district’s aging infrastructure.
McRae, an engineer with a master’s degree in sustainable business, previously worked with wastewater for an international waste services company and more recently had his own consulting business. With it, he said, he helped businesses, particularly startups, put together their business plans, where he focused on the financial aspect of the work. He described himself as having a servant’s heart.
“I like the idea of service,” he said. “I feel like this is a job to both serve the community and feed my desire to acquire knowledge. I feel like a constant learner. I saw a lot of transferable skills and wanted to throw my hat in the ring,” he said.
Now, some months in, he said that one of the challenges the district is facing is its aging infrastructure: It’s first water tower was built in the 1940s.
“There are huge capital projects that need to be undertaken,” he said, adding that for the district to be successful more money will required. To that end, he said that district leaders are looking at creative ways to fund some of the work, including through low interest loans or bonds.
He also noted that it is not clear yet how the Special District Overlay, which was part of the Community Service Area Plan islanders created with King County, will affect the district. The overlay, which allows for incentives for nonprofit developers to create affordable housing, drew considerable controversy on the island, with some saying it was not sufficient to address the affordable housing needs on the island and others saying it put too much pressure on Water District 19 and the island’s limited water supply.
Some of the challenges the district is facing will be included in Water District 19’s long-range plan, which it must file with King County next year. Before it is finalized, McRae said that district leaders will present it to the community for people to read and review it and ask questions.
Looking ahead to other needs at the district, he said they intend to work with high water users to reduce their needs. While it is important that people have access to clean water, he said that some rate changes are possible for high users and that the district has hired a consultant to help address that. Additionally, the district is looking to other water districts to see what they have done for conservation.
“We have done low-flush toilets and (low flow) showerheads,” he said. “I think that is a great start. I do not think that is a great finish. I think there is a lot more to be done there.”
Additionally, he said that Water District 19 leaders want to be proactive on stewardship. As an example he said that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is evaluating the effects of a mansion on Soper Road and determining if the structures on the land have affected Beall Creek, from which Water District 19 draws water. McRae said the district plans to work with the wildlife officials to understand not only what is happening on the mansion’s property but also to learn more about stream flows. The aim is making the stream more productive for the district and ensuring it is sustainable for wildlife.
“We are trying to walk our talk,” he said.