Of water, wells and San Juan real estate | Guest Column

Merri Ann Simonson

By Merri Ann Simonson

Unlike liquor, your water source in San Juan County is not guaranteed and must be acquired and cared for.

When you first consider purchasing an unimproved parcel of land you should condition your purchase upon a satisfactory water source. Due to the risk of closing before the water source is determined, the days of clients purchasing land without the source are long gone.

If one hopes to use institutional financing, the lender will require that the water source be acceptable in quality and quantity; in addition to a valid septic system permit and access to an electrical power provider.

The majority of non-platted parcels in the San Juan Islands are serviced by individual wells. Most subdivisions offer access to a community water system, and some urban areas offer public systems.Types of water sources in the islands include:

Individual Private wells

Shared well; 2 users. These systems should have a recorded shared well agreement with easements for maintenance and access. Depending on the volume, individual holding tanks may be required.

Group B water system; 3-14 users. In the late 1990s, the county began managing the approval process for this class of water system. The county requires that the system have a maintenance agreement, access easements, a protection zone and regular testing with an assigned purveyor. The county requests the purveyor to submit a bacteria test annually and a nitrate test every 3 years to remain in “good standing”.

Prior to late 1990s, these were unregulated systems and some of the older systems have yet to be brought up to proper standards. Hence, the importance of confirming with the county that the system is in “good standing”. These systems typically have a base monthly charge plus a fee based on your use and surcharge for heavy use.

Group A water system; 15 plus users. These systems are larger providers such as Roche Harbor Water or the Town of Friday Harbor. The system’s reports are reviewed by the state and must comply with the state’s requirements for maintenance, testing and notifications. The hook-up fee in the town of Friday Harbor is currently $10,800 and the fee for Roche Harbor Water is $8,000. These hook-up fees do not include the installation cost for connection to the main sewer lines. Again, these systems have a base monthly charge plus a use fee.

If purchaser is considering buying unimproved land, it is prudent to ask for the seller to drill the well, in a mutually agreed upon location, at seller’s expense. Depending on the purchase contract, if the well is satisfactory to the purchaser, the seller may be reimbursed for all, part or none of the well drilling expense.

Well-drilling runs about $15.50 per foot and the average depth of wells on the island is approximately 350 feet. Once you add the pump, pressure tank, water lines, power, holding tank, filters, and a modest well house, etc., the check is written in the range of $18,000-$22,000.

A purchase contract should also contain a provision for satisfactory quality and quantity testing. Those tests include a bacteria test for $35 plus $80 for the service call and a “San Juan Short” test for $142. The county requires a satisfactory San Juan Short list prior to the issuance of a building permit so it has become the standard test for new and existing wells.

The San Juan Short is inorganic testing for arsenic, barium, fluorides, sodium, electric conductivity, chloride and nitrates. Both of these tests must be sent to laboratories for analysis. The San Juan Short takes up to 14 days.

The laboratory reports provide you with a notation regarding the actual levels for each of the seven contaminants and whether they pass or fail is based on meeting acceptable levels set by State or EPA. As a realtor, I have personally been involved in several transactions on San Juan that failed the tests; several with barium and one with arsenic.

For waterfront property, the risk of saltwater intrusion being too high to meet state standards,  is always on the minds of agents.

The good news is with today’s technology, there are filter systems that can address the majority of the water contaminants. Just add more money to your budget and most problems can be fixed. Hard, soft and even “stinky” water can be remedied with various treatment systems. Salt-water intrusion, however, remains as one of the most difficult problems to resolve.

We recommend the two firms listed below for drilling, water testing, and they also provide purveyor services for community systems. Mauldin’s Well Service 360-378-6975, and Martel’s Well Drilling, 360-378-2842.

When the well is drilled, a well log will be generated that indicates the well depth and an air test that will indicate the quantity. This typically satisfies a buyer for evidence of quantity. For existing wells, if a well log is not available, a draw down test can be performed.

The service provider will pump the well down to the bottom 20 percent of the well, hold it there for four hours, and then monitor the recovery. The cost associated with this test is around $500 and it provides the gallons per minute figure.

The county has a minimum quantity requirement in order to issue a building permit. Individual wells must produce at least 200 gallons per day. A shared well and a Group B system must produce 800 gallons per day per hook up.

The Town of Friday Harbor indicates that the typical household (4 persons) uses an average of 133 gallons per day. The National consumption average is 100-150 gallons per day. The requirement of 200 gallons per day for an individual well is a form of protection to buffer water use and not stress the wells.

Well fracturing may increase production rates but it can also pose a risk to surrounding wells in the area. Well interference from drilling a new well or fracturing can be a problem and the rule is “first in time – first in right”. In the event a well interferes with a prior neighboring well, the property owner of the well that interferes must take precautions to insure that the first well has the quantity they had prior to the second well being drilled. Those precautions could include pump depth relocation, holdings tanks, restriction values and off-peak holding tank fills such as during the night time.

If you are purchasing an existing home, the water system should be tested or if it is a Group system, the status confirmed to be in “good standing.”  A telephone or email to the San Juan County health department will provide you with the “good standing” confirmation or lack of.

Again a bacteria and a San Juan Short are the tests of choice for existing private or shared wells. It is best to locate a copy of the original well log to confirm quantity as processing a draw down test can create a risk for salt water intrusion. You can find a copy of the original well logs by visiting the Department of Ecology website per the link below and searching by tax parcel number or well head ID number.

http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/wells/wellhome.html/

Alternative water sources can include a roof catchment system, although lenders frown on them, and the holding tank requirement is very large.  Another option is hauling water into a holding tank, but again, financing the home would be a challenge.

Costly desalinization water plants are an option for community subdivisions near the waterfront. Rumor has it, if you are using water from a D-sal plant, be sure to take your multi-vitamins as the process strips the water of elements we all need in our systems.   Permits are required and the well driller must coordinate with the septic designer to allow for adequate setbacks from each system. If you fell in love with a challenging lot and you have to factor in setbacks from the waterfront, Indian midden or wetlands into the equation, the entire process will become character-building and more expensive than ever.

The base archeology study starts at $2,800 and wetland delineations start at $2,600, subject to the type and amount of survey work required. A Residential Plan Application (RPA) which determines your setback from the waterfront starts at $1,000 (including the consultant) and is not binding so if the regulations change, the RPA may no longer be valid.

A homeowner should maintain their water systems regularly, similar to how we handle our septic systems. The bacteria tests should be processed annually and a San Juan Short every few years. Periodically, the well systems need to be flushed with a mild bleach solution. The holding tanks need to be monitored for tight seals; bugs can access the tank from the smallest openings.

You should have an annual inspection for both the poly and concrete tanks and clean, as needed. Expect to replace a pump about every 10 years and filters as recommended by the manufacturer.

Water throughout the world is a precious commodity. It must be used wisely and maintained properly. Humans can’t survive on liquor alone.

This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to be all inclusive of everything you should know about water systems in the county.

— Editor’s note: A full-time San Juan Island resident since 1995, Merri Ann Simonson is managing broker and sales manager of Coldwell Banker San Juan Island.