Port of Tacoma, business groups sue to stop ballot measures on water

VIDEO: Port of Tacoma, business groups sue to stop water initiatives

Economic Development Board head discusses lawsuit against Tacoma water initiatives
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Economic Development Board head discusses lawsuit against Tacoma water initiatives

Three Pierce County economic development organizations are challenging two ballot measures that would require a public vote before large industrial water users can be permitted.

The Port of Tacoma, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County filed the lawsuit Monday.

All three organizations say both issues would chill economic development in the county if they are allowed to go to a public vote, whether or not they passed.

“The fact that it’s illegal and unconstitutional is, from our perspective, almost beside the point,” said EDB CEO Bruce Kendall. “If this passes or comes close to passing, what’s next? What else are we going to have public votes on?”

The lawsuit contends that the ballot measures are flawed in many ways, among them that they go beyond the legal changes allowed by citizen initiative, attempt to override state water law and seek to strip the legal rights of corporations as established in the U.S. and state constitutions, as well as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

The suit — which names Save Tacoma Water, its treasurer Donna Walters, the city of Tacoma and Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson — seeks to invalidate both initiatives. It also asks the court to order Save Tacoma Water to pay the port and business groups’ fees and costs.

Sherry Bockwinkel, a co-sponsor for Save Tacoma Water, said the lawsuit is a scare tactic meant to intimidate the group: “They’re not even allowing the people’s process to go forward.”

Save Tacoma Water plans to turn in signatures for both issues June 15. In the past 70 days, the group has collected 15,000 signatures for both ballot measures, Bockwinkel said. One measure — a city charter amendment — requires 7,197 signatures of Tacoma voters. The other — a change to city code — needs 3,160 signatures.

If the Pierce County auditor’s office verifies that the proposals have enough signatures, the first would appear on this fall’s ballot as Initiative 6 and would mandate that all requests for water permits requiring 1 million gallons of water per day or more to get voter approval.

The second would appear on the city ballot in 2017 as Amendment 5 but would change Tacoma’s city charter in the same way. Supporters prefer the charter change because the charter cannot be changed by a vote of the City Council — unlike other city laws adopted by voter initiative.

Both initiatives grew out of an effort to stop what was proposed as the largest methanol plant in the world from locating on Tacoma’s Tideflats. Northwest Innovation Works abandoned that proposal in April.

“They have squeezed us out of this process slowly and methodically, and that’s why so many people signed our petition” to get the initiatives on the ballot, Bockwinkel said.

The organizations that filed the lawsuit are concerned about the reach of the ballot measures. Though only Tacoma voters would decide the outcome of either ballot issue, either could have impacts that go far beyond Tacoma’s borders, Kendall said.

“This would be the voters in Tacoma deciding to restrict the water supply to businesses outside of Tacoma as well,” Kendall said.

Tacoma Water serves several communities in Pierce and King counties, including the cities of Auburn, Fife, Kent, Fircrest, University Place and Federal Way.

Tacoma Public Utilities officials also are concerned. The ballot measures would force Tacoma Water to violate “a number of state statutes” which includes a requirement that the utility serve any customers within the service area without limitations, said Robert Mack, TPU’s deputy director for public affairs.

“This appears to add a separate requirement that’s not in state law about which customers we can serve and cannot serve,” Mack said.

Mack said the system’s current average demand for water is 56 million gallons per day. That’s well below its capacity, which includes ground water rights for over 100 million gallons per day.

“We have adequate supply during normal years to serve a larger customer use than we’re serving now and than we’ve served in the last 10 years,” Mack said.

Only one retail customer — the WestRock mill, formerly Simpson Tacoma Kraft — uses more than 1 million gallons of water per day. The cities of Auburn and Fife were each sold more than 1 million gallons per day by Tacoma in 2015, Mack said.

The utility is using less water now than it has historically, he said. Water use dropped thanks to conservation efforts and a reduction in the amount of manufacturing and industry in the area, he said: The daily average water use in the Tideflats area has dropped by about 50 percent, to 16.9 million gallons a day, in the last 30 years.

The now-failed methanol plant would have used 10.4 million gallons per day.

Connie Bacon, president of the Port of Tacoma commission, said she fears if the water issues make it to the ballot, companies that might consider locating in Tacoma would think twice.

“There aren’t a lot of companies out there that are going to build a methanol plant, but there are a lot of companies out there that are going to use water,” Bacon said.

Port of Tacoma attorney Carolyn Lake said she expects a Pierce County Superior Court judge to hear the complaint within a month.