Politics & Government

Tacoma water-protection group files initiative petition to stop special water contracts

Piping at the Tacoma Water Headworks Green River Filtration Facility near Cumberland in King County. A citizen petition is addressing special Tacoma Water contracts.
Piping at the Tacoma Water Headworks Green River Filtration Facility near Cumberland in King County. A citizen petition is addressing special Tacoma Water contracts. Staff file, 2014

A water protection group filed an initiative petition Tuesday seeking to delete from the city code a section that they worry allows Tacoma Public Utilities to give special contracts and rates to large water users.

Save Tacoma Water said their initiative would end water utility special service contracts. “Those customers using large amounts of fresh water daily from the city of Tacoma will have water rates equal to all other large water users,” the initiative states.

At issue is Section H in the water rates and regulations portion of the city’s utility code. It reads: “Special Contracts. The Superintendent, with the approval of the Board, shall have the right to enter into contracts for periods up to 20 years where service conditions are extraordinary; provided, that such contracts shall contain applicable rates as adopted by the Board and the City Council.”

“There is very little scrutiny over this, and that’s the problem,” said Sherry Bockwinkel, one of the founders of Save Tacoma Water, which last year collected signatures for a pair of ballot initiatives that would have required a public vote before industrial users of large amounts of water could receive permits. Those initiatives were blocked from the ballot last summer by a Pierce County superior court judge who said they exceeded the scope of the local initiative power.

Acting city attorney Bill Fosbre said the section of code that Save Tacoma Water wants to delete is intended to provide contracts for service in extraordinary circumstances to customers that have an unplanned need for water. That could include municipalities that might seek to buy water from Tacoma if a water main breaks or a water source becomes contaminated, he said.

Fosbre said he could find only one recent example of a relevant contract: In 2008, the city entered into a contract with a developer outside Tacoma to provide temporary water for a new housing development that was using reclaimed water, but didn’t have enough available yet for landscaping and irrigation needs. That contract was to last six years.

In contracts applied under that section of the code, the rates have to be the same as those set by the utility board and City Council, he said.

“The way that they are construing it, it’s as if they think that the board can approve a contract that has different rates, and they just can’t do that,” Fosbre said.

Save Tacoma Water’s concern about larger water users stemmed from opposition to a now-abandoned plan to build a methanol plant on Tacoma’s Tideflats that would have used more than 10 million gallons of water a day. They have said they oppose special rates being offered in contracts with certain large industrial users.

Those contracts must be approved by the board and City Council, utility staff said, so removing Section H wouldn’t change much. The utility, if it wants to depart from its normal rates in a contract with a large industrial user, still would have to seek approval from both its board and the City Council.

Fosbre has 10 days to review the initiative, and if it meets certain requirements under state law, then he’ll write a ballot title, he said. The initiative will need 3,160 validated signatures to make it onto November’s ballot, the city clerk’s office said Tuesday.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud