Opinion

Tacoma water fight won’t be contained to courtrooms

From the editorial board

Howard Hanson Dam and Eagle Gorge Reservoir on the Green River are shown in 2005, at a time of record-low snowpack on the peaks. Tacoma gets its water from a diversion dam downstream from here. Activists cite drought conditions as part of the reason for wanting to restrict new Tacoma industrial and commercial water users who want to use more than 1 million gallons a day.
Howard Hanson Dam and Eagle Gorge Reservoir on the Green River are shown in 2005, at a time of record-low snowpack on the peaks. Tacoma gets its water from a diversion dam downstream from here. Activists cite drought conditions as part of the reason for wanting to restrict new Tacoma industrial and commercial water users who want to use more than 1 million gallons a day. Staff file, 2005

From a legal and an economic standpoint, Tacoma business leaders are on solid ground with the lawsuit they filed this week, which seeks to block a feisty group of self-proclaimed “water warriors” from taking its fight to the fall ballot.

From a communication standpoint, the ground is more slippery.

For several weeks, the Save Tacoma Water warriors have been collecting initiative signatures, on the speculative notion that the water supply needs saving. Their goal is to make it difficult, if not impossible, for new customers to use more than one million gallons a day. If it makes the ballot and passes, voters would have the final say every time an applicant plans to exceed that high-water mark.

The activists had to know they’d be challenged in court at some point, and that they’d face long odds when they got there.

Water policy already is a tangle of state law, federal treaties and private property rights affecting everyone from tribes to farmers to fish. If local rules were superimposed on top of it, all bets would be off.

The Washington Supreme Court hammered home that point in a unanimous February ruling, taking the rare step of stopping an initiative from going to the ballot. The community bill of rights, proffered by a group called Envision Spokane, included protections for the Spokane River. The high court didn’t buy it. Justice Susan Owens wrote that the Envisioners were trying to use initiative powers to make changes “outside this scope of authority, including administrative matters, water law and constitutional rights."

In Tacoma, that ruling was cited as Exhibit A by the three parties that filed suit Monday: the Port of Tacoma, the Tacoma Pierce County Chamber and the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County (EDB).

It seems likely they will prevail. Managing water volume and usage is clearly an administrative function – and an exceedingly technical one – that’s delegated to Tacoma Public Utilities, not to voters through their limited initiative and referendum powers. It also would be plainly wrong to give Tacoma voters control over a utility that supplies thousands of ratepaying customers outside Tacoma.

On Tuesday, City Hall chimed in to raise similar concerns about the initiative’s overreach.

Apart from the legal reasoning, the plaintiffs have straightforward economic arguments in their favor. What company would invest in a city where access to resources is subject to the whim of whichever voters happen to turn out for the next general election? Not many businesses would take the risk, not even the cleanest and greenest ones. And if this passes, what's to prevent Tacoma from earning a reputation for an arbitrary and capricious regulatory climate? Nothing.

In the courtrooms and boardrooms, then, local economic leaders are in good shape. In the chatrooms of public opinion? Not so much. Officials have work to do in what they call “winning hearts and minds." They must convey the message that the port is not only an essential jobs producer, but also a trustworthy neighbor with an environmental record far stronger than 30 years ago (including water consumption cut nearly in half).

That message took a hit recently during the scrum over a now-dead plan to build the world’s largest methanol plant. It is taking another hit now, as plaintiffs are portrayed as trying to deprive citizens their right to petition the government. Remember how that worked out for Pierce County politicians during the imbroglio over a planned new government headquarters building?

This could turn into a cause celebre for activists in their homestretch effort to turn in signatures by June 15. It gives them another rallying cry now that the methanol boogeyman is gone, along with its 10.4-million-gallon-a day thirst for Tacoma water.

One way business officials can tune up their message is by toning down the rhetoric. In a meeting with the News Tribune editorial board Monday, EDB president and CEO Bruce Kendall characterized the opposition by repeatedly using a vandalism metaphor, in which “rocks are coming through the window” of the city’s economic program. Filing suit will antagonize people enough without resorting to such language.

Having good legal and economic strategies is not the same as having a good communication strategy. Tacoma development leaders must become more deliberate, polished and persuasive with the communication piece, even as they “lawyer up” to prevent unnecessary restrictions on a water system that has more-than-adequate volumes.

For its part, the city of Tacoma said Tuesday it plans to work with the port to improve public notification and communication surrounding large-scale port projects.

The city seems to recognize that the port's future as a cornerstone of the local economy will be determined not just in the court of law, but also in the court of public opinion.

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