By Merri Ann Simonson
Unlike liquor, your water source in San Juan County is not guaranteed and must be acquired
and cared for.
When you first consider purchasing an unimproved parcel of land you should condition your
purchase upon a satisfactory water source. Due to the risk of closing before the water source is
determined, the days of clients purchasing land without the source are long gone. If one hopes
to use institutional financing, the lender will require that the water source be acceptable in
quality and quantity; in addition to a valid septic system permit and access to a electrical power
The majority of non-platted parcels in the San Juan Islands are serviced by individual wells.
Most subdivisions offer access to a community water system, and some urban areas offer
Types of water sources in the islands include:
- Individual Private wells
- Shared well; 2 users. These systems should have a recorded shared well agreement
with easements for maintenance and access. Depending on the volume, individual
holding tanks may be required.
- Class B water system; 3-14 users. In the late 1990s, the County began managing the
approval process for this class of water system. The County requires that the system
have a maintenance agreement, access easements, a protection zone and regular
testing with an assigned purveyor. The County requests the purveyor to submit a
bacteria test annually and a nitrate test every 3 years to remain in “good standing”.
Prior to late 1990s, these were unregulated systems and some of the older systems
have yet to be brought up to proper standards. Hence, the importance of confirming
with the County that the system is in “good standing”. These systems typically have a
base monthly charge plus a fee based on your use and surcharge for heavy use.
- Class A water system; 15 plus users. These systems are larger providers such as Roche
Harbor Water or the Town of Friday Harbor. The system’s reports are reviewed by the
State and must comply with the State’s requirements for maintenance, testing and
notifications. The hook-up fee in the town of Friday Harbor is currently $10,800 and the
fee for Roche Harbor Water is $8,000. These hook-up fees do not include the installation
cost for connection to the main sewer lines. Again, these systems have a base monthly
charge plus a use fee.
If purchaser is considering buying unimproved land, it is prudent to ask for the seller to drill the
well, in a mutually agreed upon location, at seller’s expense. Depending on the purchase
contract, if the well is satisfactory to the purchaser, the seller may be reimbursed for all, part or
none of the well drilling expense.
Well drilling runs about $15.50 per foot and the average depth of wells on the island is
approximately 350 feet. Once you add the pump, pressure tank, water lines, power, holding
tank, filters, and a modest well house, etc., the check is written in the range of $18,000-
A purchase contract should also contain a provision for satisfactory quality and quantity testing.
Those tests include a bacteria test for $35 plus $80 for the service call and a San Juan Short test
for $142. The County requires a satisfactory San Juan Short list prior to the issuance of a
building permit so it has become the standard test for new and existing wells. The San Juan
Short is inorganic testing for arsenic, barium, fluorides, sodium, electric conductivity, chloride
and nitrates. Both of these tests must be sent to laboratories for analysis. The San Juan Short
takes up to 14 days.
The laboratory reports provide you with a notation regarding the actual levels for each of the 7
contaminants and whether they pass or fail is based on meeting acceptable levels set by State
or EPA. As a REALTOR, I have personally been involved in several transactions on San Juan that
failed the tests; several with barium and one with arsenic. The risk of saltwater intrusion for
waterfront properties can also be too high to meet State standards, and this possibility is
always on the minds of agents.
The good news is with today’s technology, there are filter systems that can address the majority
of the water contaminants. Just add more money to your budget and most problems can be
fixed. Hard, soft and even “stinky” water can be remedied with various treatment systems.
Salt water intrusion, however; remains as one of the most difficult problems to resolve.
We recommend the two firms listed below for drilling, water testing, and they also provide
purveyor services for community systems. Mauldin’s Well Service 360-378-6975.and Martel’s
Well Drilling 360-378-2842.
When the well is drilled, a well log will be generated that indicates the well depth and an air
test that will indicate the quantity. This typically satisfies a buyer for evidence of quantity. For
existing wells, if a well log is not available, a draw down test can be performed. The service
provider will pump the well down to the bottom 20% of the well, hold it there for 4 hours, and
then monitor the recovery. The cost associated with this test is around $500 and it provides
the gallons per minute figure.
The County has a minimum quantity requirement in order to issue a building permit. Individual
wells must produce at least 200 gallons per day. A shared well and a Class B system must
produce 800 gallons per day per hook up.
The Town of Friday Harbor indicates that the typical household (4 persons) uses an average of
133 gallons per day. The National consumption average is 100-150 gallons per day. The
requirement of 200 gallons per day for an individual well is a form of protection to buffer water
use and not stress the wells.
Well Fracturing may increase production rates but it can also pose a risk to surrounding wells in
the area. Well interference from drilling a new well or fracturing can be a problem and the rule
is “first in time – first in right”. In the event a well interferes with a prior neighboring well, the
property owner of the well that interferes must take precautions to insure that the first well
has the quantity they had prior to the second well being drilled. Those precautions could
include pump depth relocation, holdings tanks, restrictor values and off-peak holding tank fills
such as during the night time.
If you are purchasing an existing home, the water system should be tested or if it is a Class
system, the status confirmed to be in “good standing”. A telephone or email to the San Juan
County Health department will provide you with the “good standing” confirmation or lack of.
Again a Bacteria and a San Juan Short are the tests of choice for existing private or shared wells.
It is best to locate a copy of the original well log to confirm quantity as processing a draw down
test can create a risk for salt water intrusion. You can find a copy of the original well logs by
visiting the Department of Ecology and searching by tax parcel number or well head ID number.
Alternative water sources can include a roof catchment system, although lenders frown on
them, and the holding tank requirement is very large. Another option is hauling water into a
holding tank, but again, financing the home would be a challenge. Costly desalinization water
plants are an option for community subdivisions near the waterfront. Rumor has it, if you are
using water from a D-sal plant, be sure to take your multi-vitamins as the process strips the
water of elements we all need in our systems.
Permits are required and the well driller must coordinate with the septic designer to allow for
adequate setbacks from each system. If you fell in love with a challenging lot and you have to
factor in setbacks from the waterfront, Indian midden or wetlands into the equation, the entire
process will become character building and more expensive than ever. The base Archeology
study starts at $2,800 and wetland delineations start at $2,600 subject to the typing and
amount of survey work required. A Residential Plan Application (RPA) which determines your
setback from the waterfront starts at $1,000 (including the consultant) and is not binding so if
the regulations change, the RPA may no longer be valid.
A homeowner should maintain their water systems regularly, similar to how we handle our
septic systems. The bacteria tests should be processed annually and a San Juan Short every few
years. Periodically, the well systems need to be flushed with a mild bleach solution. The
holding tanks need to be monitored for tight seals; bugs can access the tank from the smallest
openings. You should have an annual inspection for both the poly and concrete tanks and
clean, as needed. Expect to replace a pump about every 10 years and filters as recommended
by the manufacturer.
Water throughout the world is a precious commodity. It must be used wisely and maintained
properly. Humans can’t survive on liquor alone.
This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to be all inclusive of everything you
should know about water systems in the County.