Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Lake Whatcom: Water District Fiefdom or Community Treasure?

Regulations for the Public Good

"So careful is the law [in England] against permitting a deterioration of the land, that though it will permit such improvement in the same line, as manuring arable lands, leading water into pasture lands, etc., yet it will not permit improvements in a different line, such as erecting buildings, converting pasture into arable, etc., lest this should lead to a deterioration.
Hence we might argue in Virginia, that though the cutting down of forest in Virginia is, in our husbandry, rather an improvement generally, yet it is not so always, and therefore it is safer never to admit it."
--Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1792.

"The purse of the people is the real seat of sensibility. It is to be drawn upon largely, and they will then listen to truths which could not excite them through any other organ."
--Thomas Jefferson to A. H. Rowan, 1798.

"Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children's lifetime.
The health of our waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land."
- Luna Leopold

"Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform."
-- Susan B. Anthony

"The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number of people within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction.
Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of those unborn generations"
- Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) - 26th President of the United States
On August 15, 2000, Blair Ford, President of Water District 10 Commissioners sent the letter below to the Bellingham City Council, with copies to various others.
The reason for this communication was the impending passage of the City's Watershed Preservation & Acquisition Ordinance, which raised its funding from a water rate surcharge.
Designed to raise about $2 million per year, the surcharge was a substantial $5 per month for residential users, and scaled to other users.

Water Districts, as bulk users outside the City Limits, were already being charged an additional 50% for the privilege of using potable water from the City's treatment plant.
This is allowed and provided for by State Law as a means of compensating the City, as water purveyor. for its costs of building and operating its water treatment utility.
The 150% is actually a pretty reasonable rate.
At least one city charges 400%.

The City of Bellingham has an Interlocal Agreement with Water District 10 which outlines the terms under which water will be supplied.
But this Interlocal also covers sewage, and the City's commitment to take it for treatment at its Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant.
There are limits on the amounts mentioned in this Interlocal Agreement, which some believe are excessive.

The argument goes this way:
Why should the City enable sprawl in its Municipal Water Supply Watershed, by supplying the Water District with water and sewer services?
While considerable development already exists, it makes sense to continue to supply these services to that.
But, what about new development?
How much is enough?
I believe it is time to revisit our Interlocal Agreement with the Water District and come to grips with our present reality, not something that existed 30 or 40 years ago.

Water Districts are 'Special Purpose Districts' under State Law, and have duties and responsibilities that are defined.
They are governed by an elected Board of Commissioners, who hire a Manager to oversee operations.
Whatcom County Water District 10 has now changed its name to Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District, which probably fits better.
That is because its boundaries are the boundaries of the Lake Whatcom RESERVOIR Watershed.
Or, at least that was the way we understood the boundaries.

Now, this Water District seems to want to extend its services outside its boundaries!
Why, you might ask?
Well, because it thinks it can, that's why.
Also, that has been the traditional method by which this Water District pays its costs - by expanding its customer base.
What is wrong with that picture?
Maybe the RESERVOIR Watershed is not an appropriate place for unrestricted expansion?

That is the crux of our current dilemma.
The Water District wants to continue expanding its service indefinitely, regardless of what Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham are trying to do to protect our RESERVOIR.
Notice, I keep using the 'R' word, because the Water District remains in denial that it is a RESERVOIR!

Back to WD 10 modus operandi.
The District has a much more complicated distribution system than does the City.
Its maintenance problems are severe, and it shows.
For example, it operates [at last count] about 27 pumping stations, to the City's 4.
It's terrain is hilly and its service expansions tend to induce and feed daisy-chain sprawl, not limit it.
It has suffered periodic sewage overflows directly into Lake Whatcom
Its remedy was to seek State funding for a larger detention tank, and also a larger sewer line!

What was wrong with that picture?
A larger sewer line to feed more sprawl, so that eventually another bigger spill is sure to occur!
In short, the LWW&S District is a poster child for a high-cost, high-maintenance operation in an inappropriate palce, that is constantly seeking to expand to offset its costs by increased volume!
That appears to be more acceptable than just charging its customers the actual costs of its operations!
Since when was Lake Whatcom supposed to be an inexpensive place to live?
Who ought to decide such things?

Now, we have this renegade Water District seeking special dispensation from Whatcom County to extend its tenacles into an new area of proposed development.
An area outside of any recognized UGA.
An area being sought by speculators for 'cluster' development.
'Cluster' development for mega-homes?
I don't get it.
And I hope the County doesn't either!

If we are serious about protecting our drinking water RESERVOIR, we'd better get serious about better control of the LWW&S District.
They continue to work at cross purposes to the good efforts being exerted by both County and City.
That practice needs to end, and soon!

Read for yourself how arrogant this WD was, and continues to be:
Subject: Proposed Ordinance Amending Bellingham Municipal Code Section 15.08.250D Relating to Water Use Rates

Dear City Council Members:

Water District 10’s Board of Commissioners recently learned (through an August 1, 2000 Bellingham Herald article) about your proposed ordinance to increase City water rates to acquire land in the Lake Whatcom watershed. We reviewed and discussed this ordinance at our Regular Public Meeting on August 9, 2000. The following concerns are the results of our deliberations.

1. We believe the proposed unilateral action violates our contractual agreement as outlined in the Lake Whatcom Interlocal Agreement, and subsequent joint resolutions regarding inter-jurisdictional action within the scope of programs and plans. Resolutions regarding Lake Whatcom management necessitate regular communication, collaboration, coordination, and cooperation at all levels between the City, the County, and the District. The effectiveness and efficiency (i.e., the “success”) of the various Lake Whatcom management programs depends totally on our collective adherence to these four “C” principles. Albeit probably unintentional, your proposed ordinance violates the spirit and letter of the Lake Whatcom management interlocal agreements and resolutions. It also represents a total disregard of the aforementioned guiding principles. We are justifiably surprised, dismayed, and disheartened by your action. We suggest that you defer action on the ordinance for now and engage the County and Water District 10 in accordance with our Agreements.

2. Your “discretionary” rate increase will be our “obligatory” rate increase. Unless you specifically exempt us, any water rate increase that you impose will increase the District’s operating costs, since the District purchases water from the City under contract for redistribution within our own Geneva and North Shore (primarily Eagleridge) service areas. Your rate increases, depending on their size and our ability to absorb them, can, and usually do, precipitate consequential rate increases throughout the District. As water purveyors ourselves, we fully recognize and appreciate that operating costs routinely increase, and that we both need to unilaterally adjust rates accordingly to create revenues that will cover these costs. The types of rate increases you are considering do not qualify as non-discretionary, since they are within your abilities to control and/or contain them. The rate increase you propose now is purely discretionary. You do not “need” to do this. The legitimacy of imposing non-operating costs upon ratepayers outside areas of your legal jurisdiction is highly questionable. It smacks of “taxation without representation.” As such, we protest the proposed action.

3. District ratepayers are already paying a disproportionate share of City water treatment and distribution costs. Merely because the District’s service area lies outside the City limits, the City imposes, as allowed by state law, a 50% surcharge on all water sold to the District. Arguably then, we are already paying more for water treatment and distribution operating costs than is otherwise defensible based on the actual cost of service, particularly since the City does not maintain nor repair any of the District’s distribution system. We are therefore concerned that your “…proportionate amount for metered water users…” could/would include a 50% surcharge similar to that now imposed. Notwithstanding any other considerations, we object to any surcharge as patently unfair to not only District ratepayers, but to all external City water consumers.

4. District ratepayers are already paying a very significant share of Lake Whatcom watershed protection costs. District rate payers already have shouldered, are now shouldering, and will continue to shoulder, a disproportionate Lake Whatcom Watershed protection cost burden through (1) a Consent Decree settling a Clean Water Act lawsuit against the District, which involved payment of $220,000 to the Whatcom Land Trust for “…purchase and permanent protection of environmentally sensitive, undeveloped land in the Lake Whatcom watershed, as described in Appendix A to this Decree…”, (2) the repayment of the ~$500,000 Sudden Valley Sewage Detention Tank loan over the next 4 years, a burden carried by all District sewer ratepayers, and (3) the planned repayment through increased sewer rates of Lake Louise Road Sewer Interceptor pipe over-sizing (to contain inflow and infiltration generated by the Sudden Valley and Geneva sewage collection systems) costs. The proposed rate increase would inequitably increase the watershed protection cost burden of District ratepayers.

5. Given that the exclusive purpose of the proposed ordinance is to acquire land in the Lake Whatcom watershed, we do not believe that a water rate increase is an appropriate funding method. The proposed rate increase is in fact a special purpose “excise tax” to be levied against a select population within and outside the City to finance a course of action to be defined by the City alone. If such a tax is warranted, the County, not the City, would be the proper authority to impose such a tax.

6. Under the proposal, some watershed protection “beneficiaries” will not pay fairly, or not at all. Assuming for the moment, that all land acquisition actions under the proposed ordinance if passed, would produce tangible, measurable water quality protection benefits to all Lake water use categories. (e.g., drinking, irrigation, recreation, pisciculture, aesthetics) Then many of these “beneficiaries” would escape paying for it since they receive no City water bill (e.g., watershed residents drawing water directly from the Lake or wells, “out-of-towners” swimming at Bloedel Donovan Park). In this respect, the City should have pursued the action outlined in Section 3 of the proposed ordinance.

7. A specific property acquisition plan has not been discussed, nor have specific land acquisition policies, procedures, or associated details as to location within and/or outside of the City limits, how to acquire, and when to acquire. This is the first step. It should be integrated with other watershed protection options that might prove more feasible and or cost effective.*

8. The proposed ordinance would collect funds before the actual need is identified and the project scope is developed. Cueing from the above, government is typically cast in dim light when it collects funds before a need is verified and quantities are known. The funding needs should follow from the action plan. Accordingly, you should first figure what you want to do, where you want to do it, and how much it will cost.* Once you have this information catalogued, you can then determine how to collect the funds.

9. To the best of our knowledge, the City has not performed a cost/benefit analysis of the proposed program.* This should be an essential ingredient to your decision making. Without it, you are merely doing something that just “sounds” good or “feels” right.

10. *The Comprehensive Lake Whatcom Storm Water Plan, currently under development, should eventually answer all these questions and provide this information in context with other viable water quality protection alternatives. For this critical reason, we again recommend deferring all major watershed protection initiatives pending receipt of a Plan that presents the optimum watershed protection action package.