Town and County debate water – again

For the hundred years that the San Juan County Fair has existed, it has used some water from the town. At first, water was supplied largely for livestock during fair days, but the buildings, over time, have also housed a resident caretaker, a Boy Scout cabin, daycare and more. The Fairgrounds has grown and changed over time, and with the recent remodel, particularly that of the Mary Boe Building, a over decades-long debate about how much and for what the Fair may use water resurfaced, and the Town issued the County a notice of water shutoff on Jan. 9 citing “lack of approved water use.” The County is scheduled to appeal the notice during the Town Council meeting in the Town Hall on March 21 at noon. For more information visit the Town of Friday Harbor’s website at

“I had a couple of staff people saying, you know, the Fairgrounds isn’t supposed to be expanding their water use,” Town Administrator Denice Kulseth said. That prompted her to look at two documents, one from 1979 grandfathering in the use the fairgrounds had at that time and a conditional use permit from 1992. The conditional use permit says:

“The Town has stated that it will not provide additional water service to the site for domestic purposes. Water will be provided by the Town on an as-needed basis for fire suppression,” and “The applicant has stated that the existing water service is adequate to meet the current and proposed domestic needs.”

The CUP also states that camping on the site is only allowed during the lease dates of major events and for no longer than 10 days. RV and tent camping, according to the permit are restricted to the contracted dates of a major event and new RV after, electrical and sewer hook-ups shall be prohibited. The Fair was to remove the existing administrative offices, which were at that time a trailer. It has been removed and new offices were added to the new Main Building.

The issue continued to be debated. In a 2001 memo itemizing topics for a joint meeting between Town and County Councils, “Town Wastewater Treatment” is listed as a topic, saying “each time an exception is made, as was the case to provide limited water service to the Fairgrounds, other interested parties seek to use these exceptions as a basis for equal treatment. The legal costs to defend our decisions can be enormous.”

Water usage was clearly not resolved during that joint meeting as in an email between Town Administrator Duncan Willson and Town Mayor Carrie Lacher dated June 30, 2013, Wilson wrote “I had a meeting with Mike Thomas about the water issue at the Fairgrounds. He was not aware of the restrictions, and I’m glad I caught him now because I think the county has a plan for building a park building on the site and I told him that wouldn’t be happening without authorization from the town. I had made several inquiries about their records on how they can use water and their slow use expansion over the years, and that we needed to make a plan for how to control this in the future. It was a good conversation.”

Still after that good conversation, Fairgrounds water use was listed as a topic for a joining Town and County Council meeting once again in October 2013. Less than a year later, July 2014, however, Town Code Enforcement Officer Sarena Schumacher sent a notice to the Fair to discontinue RV camping. Despite this, in 2016, County Manager Mike Thomas wrote Town Administrator Duncan Wilson “Contrary to statements made, the County is very interested in increasing the number of allowable RV spaces at the Fairgrounds. Capacity exists to add an additional six spaces.”

The increased utilization of the Fairgrounds, including community programs as well as RV parking, has helped offset the costs of maintaining the building and grounds. Such costs would otherwise be recuperated by raising Fair ticket costs.

“There are few small county or small town fairs that exist as nonprofits because [fairs] are not financially sustainable when run in that fashion. It takes a hit, even when run by volunteers. The reason you can do a fair is because you are doing spaghetti dinners, hosting all these other events throughout the year, as the Fairgrounds has done for 100 years.” Brandon Andrews, Park and Fair Director, explained. “We can provide this space to Island Rec. They don’t pay a whole lot to be here but when they’re here five nights a week with different programming, it helps contribute to what can happen here. We provide space for 4H, we have wedding receptions, all these things that while we are not booked out, all help little by little to be able to maintain the fairgrounds.”

Not helping matters, according to Andrews, an undetected five or six-galloon leak was detected in April of last year. “Last summer the Town installed an instantaneous reading meter as part of an effort to get a handle on leaks. When we looked at usage reports, we saw there was an anomaly and began to investigate. Unfortunately, it took about five months to identify the leak. Once it was identified it was fixed in about two days,” Andrews said. “Since then we have been able to use [the reading meter] to identify other leaks and fix them on a consistent basis.”

Andrews stated that even with the leaks water usage has gone down.

“The Fairgrounds has reduced its overall water consumption by over 60%,” he said. “Since the early 90s, when the 1992 conditional use permit was being pursued, records show we were using an average of about 73,000 gallons a month. Now, on average we use between 13,000 to 15,000. Certainly, that goes higher in the summer months, when the Fair occurs, or when we have the Pride Festival or an event that caused a giant spike. But, when you average it out over the course of the year, our consumption has gone down by over 60 percent over the last 30 years.”

He attributes that to a change in use, not having a caretaker, or any full-time residential use, decommissioning old showers and bathrooms, and consolidating other water hookups. While remodeling and installing bathrooms they have, he said, kept water conservation in mind, replacing older model sinks and toilets for example, with low flow systems. “We are working on getting rainwater collection up and going for more discretionary uses such as flower watering,” Andrews added.

Kulseth, however, maintains that water use at the Fairgrounds has increased with the slowly expanding fair. Her concern is for the bigger picture of continued growth and increased use of Town water as water in the County becomes a scarcer resource. “People think that because we are in the Pacific Northwest, and it rains a lot, we can not have a water issue,” Kulseth said. However, the islands do have a limited amount of water. Some homeowners have had to deal with saltwater intrusion in their wells for example. As the climate changes, these issues may only get worse. She also pointed out the cost of the Town’s water treatment plant, replacing filters, and the fact the facility will need to add a fourth filter. According to Kulsteth, the filter was originally budgeted at around $750,000 but is now anticipated to be close to $3,000,000.

To resolve the issue, Kulseth has three suggestions; annex the Fairgrounds into the Town, use portables during special large-scale events or drill a well and disconnect from Town water.

“Since the issue is not resolved, I would say that all those options and more remain on the table,” Andrews said. “I think we would identify them as not the most advantageous both to the Fairgrounds and I think even the Town… The cost of putting in a well is going to exceed about half a million dollars due to the depth.. and then you have to account for your peak usage which is the Fair. So you have to put in a subdivision-sized water tower there to be able to serve that peak time. Between the infrastructure of drilling the well and maintaining the water system of that time is extraordinarily costly.”

Both using portapotties at events, and annexing into the town also have cons as well, but again, Andrews is not ruling anything out.”I think there are ways to work with the Town to have them provide oversight over new water connections without needing to be annexed into the Town, and make sure that they are fully appraised of development at the Fairgrounds,” Andrews added. This idea, he hopes, gets to the nuts and bolts of the Town’s concerns without a costly or time-consuming resolution.

“We want to work with the Town Council, the Mayor and the staff of Friday Harbor. I think there is concern that an appeal is inherently contentious and we would like to work to find ways to institutionalize their concerns in a way that is productive and address the Town’s concerns to reestablish better collaboration and coordination with our most trusted partner. We work best when we work together and just want to make sure that we get back to that relationship as quickly and closely as possible.”