Community resilience in face of drought | Guest Column

By Steve Ulvi

Special to the Journal

We live in an uncommonly temperate, forgiving region that is being transformed. The coastal northwest, long enriched by dark roiling winter clouds and deep mountain snow, will be redefined by longer summers and warmer winters.

Nearly every molecule of water that covers the globe, was spewed in awesome volcanic eruptions or carried frozen in asteroids that pummeled a lifeless, molten earth for eons, eventual cooling and pooling.

Only earth emerged from deep time (see Mars and Venus) as the rare blue water world spinning nicely at just over 1,000 mph, veiled in clouds with a thin, relatively stable, protective gaseous atmosphere.

Any given water molecule has been recycled through countless evaporation/precipitation cycles since an early atmosphere formed.

Any drop of water may have coursed through a steamy mammoth gut, been locked in thousands of feet of glacial ice or coursed in the blood of giant dragonflies. So there is more than a little truth in an old saying that cheap beer tastes like “it has been through a horse”.

In addition to sticky molecular cohesion, water is a unique shape-shifter existing as a liquid, gas or solid in immense volumes on earth. Atmospheric water vapor is a blessing as precipitation, but a curse as a potent greenhouse gas. No one in history has ever known these things.

Clean water, long taken for granted, is an essential common resource worthy of careful protection. Our nation and this region have failed miserably in that regard. But we enjoy a great natural resilience where ocean moisture collides with steep land. We still have a chance to adapt to new moisture regimes.

Without rivers, island groundwater is hit and miss and probably more tenuous than we imagine. An unknown portion of winter rain runs off. Groundwater pressure keeps salt water from intrusion, but many wells will fail or salt out in intensified drought conditions.

The few surface reservoirs that serve most of our population have been a fall back source, but in drought crisis will not be available to bail out folks with dry wells.

The County rightly allows rainwater to be held without a water right with reasonable limitations. But catchment systems seem an exception, rather than a rule around here due to inconvenience, expense and labor. Yet if you drill into some water you are free to use up to 5,000 gallons a day.

Our groundwater, pooled in bedrock fractures, unknown in capacity, is not considered to be in danger, so no tax incentives for conservation or rainwater catchment are contemplated, despite the obvious social utility.

We are also told it is unpolluted — so far. Rain carries pollutants from around the globe that will surely increase as nations desperately cling to “cheap” fossil fuel energy.

Community resilience during the coming decades of cascading, never before experienced change, will be sorely tested. Meanwhile, embrace the troubling beauty of a blood red sun and say goodbye to salmon and resident orcas. Express your thoughts July 20, 6 p.m. on water or any other island way of life issue, threatened by a warming atmosphere, at a facilitated Community Discussion sponsored by Island Climate Resilience at the San Juan Grange.

Editor’s note: U.S. Parks Service retiree Steve Ulvi and his wife arrived on San Juan Island in 2007.