There's a drought on, honestly

Published on Thu, Aug 9, 2001 by Meg Olson

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There's a drought on, honestly

By Meg Olson

Blaine and Birch Bay water system managers are working together to teach local residents good water habits because, whether they need them yet or not, they might later.

“It’s best to start in now so if we do get into trouble people are already doing it,” said Blaine water conservation intern Laurie Darian. “If you make conservation a way of life now it’s better for everyone.”

“There used to be an embarrassment of water but now it’s getting to be a precious commodity,” said Birch Bay Water and Sewer District (BBWSD) water utility operator Charlie Hagin. “It’s easier to manage your water supply now than pursue the expensive alternative of purchasing a new water supply.”

Hagin said Blaine is lucky among Whatcom County communities in that it doesn’t rely on surface water, but pumps from a deep aquifer running across the Canadian border. “Drought doesn’t usually affect deep aquifers. It has more of an effect on shallow ones and surface water systems,” he said. “When it really hits may be several years down the road,” Darian added.

Yearly precipitation recorded by BBWSD has been below the 25-year average since 1997, when record rains and snows hit the county and Mt.Baker broke worldwide snowfall records. “Four years ago was one of the wettest years on record but it’s been declining steadily,” Hagin said.

Of the last six months of 2000 and first six months of 2001, ten months had below average precipitation and the remaining two months showed close to average levels. In half of those months precipitation levels were half of average levels. Overall, Hagin estimates rainfall is down over 50 percent.

Blaine checks the levels in municipal wells weekly and Darian said data for the last 30 years has shown consistent levels in the city’s wells. “We haven’t seen anything troubling,” she said. However, Darian cautioned that the riches of the city’s deep aquifer water supply could become overtaxed if dry years succeeded each other. “The dry we’re experiencing now may not be seen in our wells until next year or later,” she said. “What will impact us is a multi-year drought,” Hagin agreed.

The city owns 243 acres in east Blaine where a network of wells, tanks and pipes suck water from three to eight hundred feet below the surface and send it to 3,500 taps in Blaine and 3,800 in Birch Bay. Blaine owns the water rights for the wells and Birch Bay purchases its water from Blaine under a contract currently being renegotiated. Both water systems see demand increase in the summer, as seasonal residents move in and homeowners water lawns and gardens. BBWSD monitors water usage and last year 35 percent of the district’s yearly water use was in June, July and August.

In addition to seasonal jumps in use, rapid growth in the Birch Bay area translates into more water customers. BBWSD connected 111 new customers in 2000 and has 55 so far this year, compared to 42 new connections in Blaine in 2000 and 16 so far in 2001. Hagin said water usage is increasing, but conservatively given pressure from rapid growth and low rainfall. “Birch Bay has done quite a bit of growing and usage doesn’t reflect that,” he said. “That tells me something is working in conservation.”

The city and district are coordinating conservation efforts and updating a joint emergency response plan. “If we have an emergency, Birch Bay has one too,” Darian pointed out.

A cornerstone of their joint efforts is public education, Hagin said. “The toilet is one of the biggest culprits for indoor leaks,” he said. “People don’t replace flapper valves until they hear the toilet running, but they wear out.” He said homeowners should put a few drops of food coloring in their tanks and, if any color leaks into the bowl, replace the valve. “It’s a simple job,” he said.

Darian said she had recently put aerators on her home’s faucets, saving gallons of water a day. “Our bathroom tap flow was 2.75 gallons per minute. With an aerator its 1.5,” she said. “It doesn’t make a lot of difference when you wash your hands but it can add up to dozens of gallons a day.”

Blaine public works has free indoor and outdoor conservation kits available, including dye tabs for toilets, aerators, low-flow showerheads, rain gauges and more. Darian said free software is also available to businesses to help them calculate how much they could save through conservation.

BBWSD charges $5 for a conservation kit, but gives $3 of it back as a credit when homeowners bring in old shower heads and inefficient hose fittings. “I want to see what’s out there and make sure people are using the kit,” Hagin said. People who use the kits will have their use monitored by the district so water savings can be measured.

A workshop is planned for October to teach gardeners the advantages of fall planting. “The ground is still warm from the summer, you’re facing a wet season to help plants establish and, the bottom line, plants are cheaper,” Hagin said.

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