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PART 2: SAN JUAN COUNTY CHARACTERIZATION REPORT
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
Chapter 1, Introduction and Summary of Findings
This report is part of a water quality management plan for San Juan County. The San Juan County Watershed Management Committee developed the goals for this project as follows:
- Reduce and eliminate contamination from nonpoint sources of pollution including pathogens, toxic contaminants, sediment, and nutrients from the waters of San Juan County.
- Develop county policies that manage water resources, by protecting existing water rights, by protecting and enhancing flows and habitat for water-related wildlife and fish, and by providing for the public health and well-being of the county.
- Develop a watershed management plan that includes realistic objectives and durable solutions that reflect the diversity of the watersheds and island communities and will survive political change.
This report is an assessment of watershed conditions in San Juan County. It includes information on hydrology, land cover, soils, land use activities, habitat, beneficial uses of water, current water quality conditions, and potential sources of pollution. This assessment is part of an overall effort by San Juan County and the Watershed Management Committee to develop strategies to alleviate and prevent pollution through the development of a watershed management action plan. These strategies will address countywide conditions as well as specific local watershed concerns. This report, along with baseline water quality monitoring being conducted during 1999 - 2000, will describe water quality conditions in the county at the end of the 20th century. In the future, as the county grows and water quality conditions change -- for better or worse -- this information will serve as a benchmark to assist county citizens and officials in protecting water quantity and quality and the biologic health and diversity of the waters of the county.
Watershed management involves looking at all aspects of the hydrologic cycle on a watershed basis and evaluating the impacts on water quality and quantity. Watershed planning started in San Juan County in 1987, with an initial Watershed Ranking project. This effort was part of a movement in the Puget Sound basin to manage pollution entering the region's fresh and marine surface waters. The watershed ranking was funded through Centennial Clean Water Funds administered by the Washington State Department of Ecology. The development of this characterization was guided by 400-12 WAC (Local Planning and Management of Nonpoint Source Pollution).
In 1988, the San Juan County Watershed Ranking Report established a priority ranking for 13 watersheds, based the need for management planning. The criteria included an evaluation of beneficial uses of water and potential for pollution. The ranking was:
1. East Sound (Orcas Island), 2. Friday Harbor (San Juan Island), 3. Westcott/Garrison bays (San Juan Island), 4. Fisherman Bay (Lopez Island), 5. Roche Harbor(San Juan Island), 6. Mud/Hunter bays and Lopez Sound
7. West Sound (Orcas Island), 8. Deer Harbor (Orcas Island),
which tied for points with,
9. False Bay (San Juan Island), 10. Squaw Bay (Shaw Island), 11. Blind Bay (Shaw Island), 12. Mitchell Bay (San Juan Island), 13. MacKaye Harbor (Lopez Island).
In 1996, San Juan County was awarded a grant by Department of Ecology (DOE) and Puget Sound Water Quality Authority (PSWQA) for Centennial Clean Water Funds to complete this assessment, establish a citizens' advisory committee (the Watershed Management Committee), and develop a Watershed Management Action Plan for all the watersheds in San Juan County.
Watersheds in San Juan County have many things in common, but each watershed has unique characteristics and unique management needs. This characterization report discusses conditions on a countywide basis and also describes specific local conditions for the top nine ranked watersheds, in order to present a more detailed picture.
How this report was developed
This characterization report is the result of a cooperative effort between the San Juan County Conservation District and San Juan County Health and Community Services. Consultant services for the project were contracted with Azous Environmental Science and Analysis and White Point Biomarine. Funding for the report was provided through grant #G9600277, Centennial Clean Water Funds, under the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Field observations and water quality sampling were conducted in the spring of 1997 and winter of 1997-98. Information was collected on water quality, hydrology, land cover, marine and terrestrial habitat, and activities that impact water quality, such as on-site septic systems, forestry and agricultural practices, marinas, storm water, and land development. A computerized geographic information data system (GIS) was developed to analyze information and produce informational maps of the county and watersheds.
Watershed boundaries were determined by using a digital elevation model to predict where water drains to the designated receiving waters (salt water bays). Maps were then developed to show the type of land cover; extent of documented wetlands and streams; documented wildlife habitat; soil conditions for septic systems, agriculture, forestry, and erosion potential; current parcel and land use activities; and land use designations.
The following subjects are covered in this report to determine the characteristics of the county's watersheds.
As part of its goals and objectives, the San Juan County Watershed Management Committee identified beneficial uses of water for the county as the following: Domestic supply, habitat and special areas, recreation, commercial/industrial, agriculture, and aquaculture. Domestic use and habitat were ranked as the highest beneficial use of water in the county. Discussion of the use of water in these areas is included in Chapter 3, and is based on water resource technical reports and data on water use from local and state agencies.
Land cover information was developed from SPOT satellite data acquired on July 26, 1996. The land cover categories include, 1) urban, gravel, mowed grasses , 2) grasses, 3) sparse (thinned or partially cut) forest, 4) dense forest, and 5) scrub. The land cover data is based on a pixel size representing a 30-meter square, which limits the level of detail of the information. Land cover plays a critical role in how water is captured, filtered, and stored in the landscape.
The USDA Soil Conservation Service mapped soil conditions in 1962, published as the San Juan County Soil Survey. This soil information was computerized and used to show the extent of soil conditions for on-site septic systems, agricultural, and forestry operations. This information is essential to determining how well soils in a watershed treat effluent from septic systems, maintain healthy pasture conditions, and resist damage from logging, road building, construction, and other activities that cause erosion.
Streams, lakes and wetlands
Streams, lakes and wetlands were mapped using digital information from the Department of Natural Resources, the US Geological Survey, National Wetlands Inventory, and San Juan County's wetland survey. Because much of this information was drawn from satellite images and aerial photos, many small streams and wetlands do not appear on these maps. The surface hydrology, volume, and flow of surface water in a watershed determine how a watershed stores water and maintains water quality.
Maps of fresh- and salt-water wetlands and riparian (stream) areas, eel grass and kelp beds, terrestrial habitat, shellfish and educational/research areas are mapped. This additional information is drawn from digital images from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Natural Heritage Program and data collected as part of the Department of Ecology's Coastal Zone Atlas. A discussion of wildlife and plant species in the county is included in Chapter 2, based on information from several texts on the natural history of the county.
Sources of nonpoint pollution
Nonpoint sources of pollution in San Juan County are discussed in detail in Chapter 5. They include on-site septic systems, agricultural and forestry practices, storm water runoff, the conversion of resource lands (forest/grass/wetlands) to residential and commercial development, marinas, and hazardous/solid waste.
Existing and potential development
Existing land use and development activities are mapped for each watershed based on the County Assessor's information in San Juan County's GIS database. At the time of this report, December, 1999, the county's land use and density designations are under review and as a result future development potential is not represented. Maps of potential density will be developed as part of the county's Growth Management Act review, scheduled for completion in summer, 2000.
Summary of findings
San Juan County is a community of bedrock islands in the rainshadow of the Olympics and Vancouver Island with the smallest land mass of any county in Washington and the greatest extent of shoreline of any county in the United States. The dominant natural features of the watersheds in the county are their small size, lack of rainfall, extensive runoff, shallow soils, and direct contact with estuaries, bays, coves, inlets, and open shoreline. All fresh water in San Juan County comes from rainfall and all runoff flows to marine waters.
Almost seventy percent of the county is forested. The balance is mostly grasslands and scrub, with less than one percent overall of paved area. Lakes and fresh water wetlands cover an estimated four percent of the landscape. At the time of this report the county's year-round population is an estimated 13,000 people, with residential development on approximately 3,110 shoreline parcels and 4,641 inland parcels. Almost 2,000 people live in the Town of Friday Harbor (Washington State OFM, 1998). Currently the county population growth is estimated at between one and two percent. Historically the county was a fishing, farming, mining, and logging community with related industries, such as canneries and lime production. In the last 20 years the local economy has changed to an economy based on vacation homes and tourism. The county is considered an extremely desirable place to live, play, and visit.
There is a considerable lack of detailed information on the natural resources and water resources in the county, including wetlands, streams, aquifers, shoreline inventories, and up to date information on birds, fish, and other wildlife. Much of the data used to develop maps and analysis for this report is based on inventories and studies that are 20 to 30 years old and in many cases these studies involved limited field work, due to problems such as staffing and time limitations and the difficulty with covering extensive areas of shoreline or travelling interisland. The Coastal Zone Atlas and Natural Heritage Program fieldwork was done in the 1970s, and the San Juan County Soil Survey was published in 1962! Soil characteristics of the county have not changed, but soil science and the value system attached to soils have changed considerably in the last 50 years. The scale of areas mapped in these studies can be misleading, as well. In the Soil Survey, soil areas as large as five acres are lost because of the scale used for the maps (1:20,000).
In order for policy makers and property owners to make informed decisions, up to date information about the physical and biological conditions in the watershed and shoreline is needed.
Watersheds can be viewed as the sum of their physical and biological components and the interactions between these components. Biological components include vegetation, fish, and wildlife, while physical factors include geology, hydrology, and topography. Surrounding all of these components is the history of past interactions and outside events.
The relationships between watershed components change in response to disturbances in the watershed. These changes frequently result in greater diversity within the watershed. Natural disturbances in the San Juan Islands have included wildfires, droughts, volcanic, and glacial activities.
Humans tend to perceive watersheds from a utilitarian viewpoint that includes agriculture, logging, recreation, urbanization, or water development. Human use of watershed components alters the balance of the interactions between all the components. Human disturbances, such as road construction, timber harvesting, urbanization, or water use, often lead to simplified drainage patterns and reduced biodiversity within a watershed (Euphrat and Warkentin).
Two physical factors in the San Juan Islands create severe limitations not usual in other western Washington watersheds. Very low annual precipitation combined with large areas of soils with restricted water holding capacity create severe ground water shortages in many locations.
Water quality is critical to the two primary beneficial uses of water in San Juan County, domestic use and natural habitat. Water quality is an indicator of the quality of all biologic life in the San Juans. The marine waters and upland terrain of the county support a rare biologic diversity. In order to protect the natural beauty of this unusual environment, careful management of the hydrologic balance of each watershed is needed. This is not a new concept for San Juan County. Residents here have long been known for their concern about water quantity and quality. Historic accounts almost always mention the importance of water resources. In 1928, the county was declared a marine biologic preserve, due, in part, to concerns about marine water quality and its importance to sustaining ideal conditions for marine biologic studies.
Current marine water quality monitoring by the Washington State Department of Health, Shellfish Section, and by the Department of Ecology Ambient Monitoring Program indicate that, compared to other counties in the Puget Sound Basin and Northwest Straits, the marine waters of San Juan County are of very high quality. However, this monitoring also shows that that pollution potential is present (see Chapter 5, Water Quality).
Because the county's watersheds are so small, there is limited natural filtration and treatment time available to runoff before it enters receiving waters. This feature makes the prevention of pollution even more critical. Water quality testing conducted as part of this characterization revealed a number of locations with high levels of fecal contamination. Storm water in Friday Harbor and Eastsound was consistently above acceptable levels for fecal coliform and contamination was also found in streams flowing through agricultural areas and in residential developments. Although extensive surveys have not been conducted, it is realistic to assume that the failure rate for on-site septic systems is at least as great as the regional average of seven percent and that the increasing numbers of livestock, for recreational and commercial use, are having an impact on water quality. The potential for contamination is clearly present.
The key to watershed management in San Juan County is prevention. Unlike other counties in the region that have had to face costly shellfish harvest and beach closures that last for many years, this county has yet to deal with the expense of restoration after extensive degradation. Prevention of this type of damage will not only save the community money, but also, more importantly, will protect irreplaceable resources that benefit both the human and natural environment.
Conclusions -- gaps in what we know
Good information is essential to good management. In producing this report, many gaps were found in the available information. Very little water quality monitoring has been done in the county. As a result, the first step in developing information for this report involved an initial investigative monitoring to get general idea of current conditions. Water quality monitoring has been limited in the past largely due to the county's remote and pristine image. This lack of baseline information makes it difficult to evaluate changes. Although the county's water quality is very good compared to other areas in the region, ongoing monitoring and an early warning system are needed to detect changes and prevent damage.
Limited information on the rate of septic system failure and farm management practices make it difficult to quantify risks and identify problem areas. This is a significant gap because the county's soil conditions and small drainages are not well suited for the natural filtration and treatment of contaminants.
The amount of fresh water available for human use and habitat has not been quantified. This task is extremely difficult due to the diverse nature of the county's geology, topography, and rainfall. Although it is possible to estimate the amount of water used for domestic and commercial activities, little actual data is available.
Because of the county's geographic and geologic diversity, specific information is needed for each drainage basin in order to make sound management decisions for forestry, farming, residential development, and habitat conservation. This report cannot cover all the complexity of the county's many watersheds and sub-basins. In order to evaluate conditions, geographic information at a scale that is appropriate for the small drainage basins is needed. Currently, the maps available can fail to show important features for areas less than five acres . Many small wetlands, and wetlands that do not show up on photo or satellite images (such as areas covered with forest and some grass land) are not documented. In a county where water resources are a critical factor, every wetland and seasonal stream is important.
For a rural county which values its natural settings and abundant wildlife, information on habitat is sketchy or nonexistent. Surveys of habitat conditions are out of date and limited in detail. Shoreline and riparian conditions are not documented. No systematic studies have been conducted of wildlife and natural systems in the county. Funding for specific study areas, such as salt marshes or warm water lakes, has added to the information about habitat, but the overall picture is far from complete.
The satellite images and elevation models used in this report are at a resolution of 30 meters. Soil and wetland information is at a scale of 1:20,00 and 1:24,000
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