Alarmed by Town’s move to cut off water supply lifeline to rural properties | Guest Column

By Andy Haas

San Juan Island

Freshwater is a precious and essential resource, particularly on a small island. We are all tapping into the same finite supply, whether served by wells, municipal water hookups, or bulk water deliveries. We are all in this together as one island community.

This value has been central in water management on San Juan Island both in spirit and practice for decades. In January 2024, the approach and tone changed dramatically when the Town of Friday Harbor initiated a water war with a shot across the bow to San Juan County. After 45-plus years of providing water service to the County Fairgrounds, a beloved community resource that hosts events and services for all islanders, the Town served notice that they plan to turn off the water. In response to this alarming power play, the County filed suit against the Town to prevent the “irreparable harm and damage” that would be incurred by discontinuation of water service to the facility and to challenge the Town’s violation of, “the constitutional right to due process”. It is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, and certainly dysfunctional for the island’s local governments to clash in the courts rather than work out solutions in the best interest of all the island’s residents. As is usually the case, the conflict appears to be at its core about money and control.

On June 6th, Town officials escalated their water war with a second shot, this time an ordinance aimed at vulnerable island families that rely on bulk water delivery to meet basic water needs for cooking, drinking, and bathing. Once again this sudden power play targeted an essential service that residents have relied on for decades and generations. Once again this was done without adequate opportunity for community dialogue and public input from island residents that would experience irreparable harm from being denied water for basic uses by this ordinance. The ordinance, which is scheduled to take effect September 1, would leave dozens of the Island’s less affluent residents without a reasonable and reliable alternative for water service and a grossly inadequate timeline for transitioning to a costly alternative source if it is even feasible. Even if the money were available for drilling an unprecedented number of new wells, it would take many years, not three months to permit and drill wells for all rural residents that rely on bulk water delivery currently. The lack of a viable remedy that could be reasonably implemented in the time frame provided by the legislation would create a public health and safety crisis.

It is time for the Town Council to take a step back from these provocative, unilateral moves to allow time for adequate public discourse with a focus on solutions for the benefit of the whole island community. Reasonable people should be able to find a reasonable and equitable solution that strikes a balance such as amending the legislation to grandfather in existing residential households that rely on the lifeline provided by bulk water delivery. While the Town of Friday Harbor may be within its legal right (I guess we will see what the courts say), this divisive approach to water management that prioritizes future development over existing residents is not right for San Juan Island.