Valley-Centric County Commission System Needs Change

The decades-long issue with failing wells on Guemes Island illustrates the need for a change in county government.

A U.S. Geological Survey study of Guemes was completed in 1994. Such studies are paid half by USGS and half with matching funds from a local agency or sponsor.

The islanders who had contacted USGS for this study approached the Board of Skagit County Commissioners for their sponsorship but were turned down. The group ultimately found matching support from the Skagit County Conservation District.

The study proved that island aquifers are rain fed and have a typical lens shape. Reducing the head height of an inland aquifer by one foot allows seawater to move up 40 feet where the seawater and fresh water meet. Thus, water taken for inland wells results in seawater moving into wells near the sea.

By 2000, a series of north-end private and public wells failed due to seawater intrusion. Even as they failed, new drilling went on as it does to this day. The result is that the rights of established well owners near the sea are transferred to new owners inland.

The county has taken the position that no “special” remedies would be allowed for water problems on Guemes that did not exist in the rest of Skagit County. Multiple requests to the commissioners and the Planning Commission failed to change this policy. To this day, no permit is needed to drill a well anywhere on the island.

The water problems on Guemes demonstrate that the valley-centric, three-commissioner system does not adequately represent western areas of the county with their marine environments and resources. These western areas need local representation, which can be attained under a new charter with five or seven council persons.

- Stephen Orsini