Editorial: Vashon’s water debates are still quite relevant

Water on Vashon, as Islander Donna Klemka pointed out in a recent interview, is the ultimate property right. Pollute it upstream, and those downstream lose out. Dig more and deeper wells, and your neighbor’s supply might run dry.

Or put another way, as Mark Twain famously said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

In other words, this seemingly abundant resource matters enormously on Vashon, where we all have a stake in its ready availability and life-affirming quality.

Now, thanks to funding from surface-water management fees that property owners pay and the solid, thoughtful work of both county officials and engaged Islanders, we know much more about this important resource on Vashon. Indeed, a report the county just completed breaks some ground on Vashon that in other parts of the state — such as Kittitas County — is the subject of huge battles. The report’s authors didn’t try to separate groundwater from surface water — a false dichotomy to the scientific community — but rather suggests that how much we drain from the ground could affect how much is available in our streams.

And that, then, brings up a host of other harder and more nuanced questions. The issue on Vashon, as the county’s Jim Simmonds notes, is no longer whether we have enough. We do, it appears. The question is one of balance.

Could one Islander’s well — deeper and bigger — cause his neighbor’s to run dry? Could a proliferation of wells trigger a summertime drop in Judd Creek’s water levels, thereby jeopardizing the animals that creek supports? And when might we find we have enough water, but much of it is polluted from increased nitrates — the result of failed septic systems, poorly managed livestock pens, climate change and natural forces?

As is often the case in the world of science, the answers aren’t black and white. This report, highly technical and a tough read for the layperson, doesn’t provide a set of quick answers.

But it does suggest a roadmap. It shows that the Island needs to continue to safeguard this resource, that limits to growth are still in order and that when it comes to water, we’re all in it together. In this arena more than almost any other, the actions of one Islander can affect another; a development, even thoughtfully done, can have unforeseen consequences.

So while we now know we may have enough, it’s hardly time to open the floodgates. Rather, we need to continue the thoughtful discussions — ones that occur quarterly when the Island’s Groundwater Protection Committee meets — and continue to ask hard questions. And we should thank those members of the committee who have already poured untold hours into this remarkably important issue. It’s in part because of their hard work that we now have a much fuller picture of one of the Island’s most critical resources.

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