Islands are surrounded by water, by definition. The moat and its shoreline sometimes has less to do with life on the island than the water that’s inland. That’s the water we drink, build around, play on, and manage. Thanks to the County, there’s even a map for this, and that, and a lot of other things, too.
Get a glass of water. In most places in the US, that’s not an issue. Turn the tap and water flows out. Watch it run down the drain and don’t worry about it anymore. On an island, it can still work that way, but the relationship is much more intimate.
On the mainland in Western Washington, almost everyone is drawing from massive reservoirs that collect the dozens of feet of snowmelt that flows down from the mountains every spring. Drink it, flush it, whatever you do with it, it probably goes down a sewer where it’s cleaned and passed along.
On the island, there are a few developed areas that work like that, but thousands of houses rely on a far closer solution. It doesn’t make economic sense to create one large system that runs the length of a long, skinny, hilly island. Instead, houses and neighborhoods tend to draw from wells that tap into aquifers that are fed by rainwater.
Our long, wet winters provide the water that gets us through our shorter, drier summers. There are so many wells drilled that if the island was a boat it would sink – fast. The good news is that your house may draw clean, tasty water that’s hard to duplicate. Don’t be surprised, though, to find that your neighbors have installed filters to clear and clean from aquifers that are more – uniquely flavored. Think that’s a simple thing to do? Check out this neighborhood’s description of their system that involves a well that reaches below sea level to pump up 250 gallons per minute. (You can also check out this post about what happened when it needed to be repaired.)
All of those wells and all of those pumps have limits, though. That means that, even when there’s an empty lot that looks like a sweet building spot, the neighbors may have already used up the local allotment. Another good excuse for talking to the County.
We pump the water up, and then it drains back down, sometimes into sewers, but frequently into septic systems. Just like with the wells, septic systems can’t be installed everywhere. It makes sense to keep the two separate, which can be somewhat limiting. Geology plays a role, too. Depending on the soils and the slope, a variety of septic systems may be able to handle to waste water – or maybe not. Some of those sweet building spots don’t “perc”, i.e. the water doesn’t percolate through the soils correctly. Want details? Go talk to the County or a septic professional.
Put those two together properly and find a homeowner who knows more than most about where their water comes from, how it gets to them, and where it goes. They may even know what to do about it when something breaks. Listen to the echoes from other water-conscious regions that chorus; “When it’s yellow, let it mellow. When it’s brown, flush it down.” The typical American uses 82 gallons of water per day. During one water emergency some were able to get by on less than a gallon for drinking, a gallon for washing, rainwater for flushing, and neighbors for showering. Install a sun shower, and make that even easier. Install rain barrels, and have dozens of gallons of supply, and the strong likelihood of a natural recharge within days, except in August (that’s another story.)
An island may be defined by the water around it, but an island the size of Whidbey Island draws character from the water within it. Lakes are large enough for boats, and can be stocked with trout. Streams may not be navigable by humans, but the salmon are glad they’re there. Wetlands attract wildlife. Marshes and estuaries blur the line between fresh and salt water. Natural sanctuaries are sources of some of the island’s beauty. Here’s a constant refrain. Want more information? Contact the County. Somehow they keep all of this in mind when considering permits, growth, and land management. They also provide a set of maps that can provide day-long distractions.
Water is life, and without water, Whidbey wouldn’t be an island, and we wouldn’t be able to live on it. One thing is for sure, islanders don’t take it for granted. They can’t.