Water, water (is not) everywhere

Posted 2/21/24


As of Feb. 16, the Olympic snowpack that supplies water to our region sat at a miserable 33 percent of normal. While it may increase through the end of the snow season …

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Water, water (is not) everywhere



As of Feb. 16, the Olympic snowpack that supplies water to our region sat at a miserable 33 percent of normal. While it may increase through the end of the snow season (roughly April 15-30), and a few hard rains may still fall, global warming and rising snow lines do not bode well for the future. Which leaves our water supplies … where?

According to Port Townsend City Manager John Mauro and Public Works Director Steve King, the city’s water supply is in good shape. Thanks to a 29-mile pipeline constructed 96 years ago, water from the two Quilcene Rivers flows into Lords Lake, and then City Lake, before reaching our water treatment plant. Those lakes are currently at capacity.

“Our partnership with the Port Townsend Paper Corporation (Mill) is an important way that we steward our water resources, including collective planning and investment into the pipeline as well as dealing with a significant drought,” Mauro stated via email. “During a drought, we urge water conservation for residents and also utilize the provision in our agreement with the Mill to prioritize human consumption over Mill water use, so we’re unlikely, if ever, to be without water to drink.”

King emphasized that the city did a fair amount of research on water supply while negotiating the current paper mill water agreement. The mill ordinarily consumes 90 percent of the city’s water supply, but that usage can be cut back to zero levels in an extreme drought.

“Typically, we don't start drawing down Lords Lake reservoir levels until mid-to-late August,” King wrote. “The date we do so sets in motion whether or not conservation is needed, as it is easy to predict how long the reservoirs will supply water. Also, the paper mill will sometimes bring in temporary cooling towers in the early summer if they think there will be a shortage—they can reduce Mill usage from about 11 million gallons per day to about 8 million. As a partner, the City also will ask residents to conserve if it looks like water supply may be short when we start to use water from the Lords Lake reservoir … If the fall rains come in October and early November as normal, then water supply concerns are ameliorated.”

Angela Gyurko facilitates the Health and Wellness Group of Local 20/20, an all-volunteer grassroots organization located in East Jefferson County dedicated to promoting self-reliance, sustainability, and resiliency at a community level. With an eye on the future, Gyurko has proposed increasing reservoir size as a way of dealing with water shortages.

While reservoir expansion has occurred sporadically in some locations, former Port Townsend Mayor Deborah Stinson, a founding member of Neighborhood Preparedness and 2020.org’s Emergency Preparedness Action Group, said, “We can only divert so much water from the rivers. We can’t let them run dry and endanger the salmon run. While there has been discussion about creating another lake for local reservoir needs, the major challenge is to find an appropriate place to flood.”

To Stinson, it’s essential that people educate themselves on how to curtail water use by addressing everything from brushing teeth and washing dishes to doing the laundry, and watering lawns. She also urges people to educate themselves by reading PUD newsletters and attending the All-County Picnic in August. Except for Port Ludlow and Cape George, water for the just under 5,000 homes and businesses in the rest of Jefferson County is supplied via either the Public Utility District (PUD) or private wells. According to Will O’Donnell, Jefferson County PUD District No. 1 Broadband and Communications Director, the county’s water comes from underground reservoirs that are not as vulnerable to fluctuations in the snowpack.

“Annual rainfall is a bigger concern for us,” O’Donnell said. “We closely monitor forecasts and do everything we can to encourage wise water use and conservation, especially during the hot dry months of summer when demand for water is at its highest. A lot of mitigation action can be done before the underground aquifer is drained during the heat of the summer.”

Emergencies of all sorts can lessen or even cut off city and county water supplies. JeffCo Department of Emergency Management Director Willie Bence reports that following pandemic-associated delays, the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMPP), which addresses lessening impacts from disasters, Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP), that covers what to do when disaster strikes, and Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) are all being updated as of this writing.

“From our standpoint, expanding water capacity can be costly,” Bence said. “From a disaster-response standpoint, our primary goal is to reduce water consumption by working with the community to use less. Honestly, we must change our behavior and water use as climate change continues.”

Our water supply is as much in nature’s hands as in our own.


Jason Victor Serinus is a critic of culture, music, and audio. The oldest member of the WA State LGBTQ Commission, he’s also a professional whistler. Column tips: jvsaisi24@gmail.com.