The Merger; Second Thoughts Anyone?

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Mon, Apr 28, 2008, 9:08 pm  //  g.h.kirsch

Listening to the discussion of a possible merger between Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District and Bellingham at City Council this afternoon was like returning to those wild and reckless days of the 1970's, when there were no limits to growth, and no thought to the environment.

Not that this discussion, at least from the city's perspective, is not about protecting the environment, in particular, Lake Whatcom. But listening to Dick McKinley, their able but old school manager of public works, and then Jim Neher, the current manager of the water district, it was like listening to16th century geographers or astronomers who had missed the account of Columbus' voyage, or were yet to read Copernicus.

As the discussion moved along, issues were put forward. What of the city's duty to serve new development? Who will bear the costs of stormwater systems outside the city? Should watershed residents presently without stormwater service be obliged to pay a fee for the same?

It was as though no one else remembered that in the 1990's we passed a Growth Management Act. Or else they felt these laws had no bearing on their considerations.

I was struck by the realization that the city, after their unlawful extension of water out the Guide, still has not entirely accepted the reality that extension of urban services outside of their urban growth areas is contrary to the law.

This whole idea of merging or acquiring the water district fails to make sense to me. The water district is unable, financially or practically to operate without the city's cooperation.

These water districts are anachronisms. They were created in an era long past. At the time growth was not managed. Now the law, and our county's Comprehensive Plan, designate cities to be the natural purveyors of urban services; and only to extend or expand them in areas designated for urban growth. These water districts' former mandate to provide sewer, stormwater, or water services at intensities usually found in urban areas, ended with the passage of the Act.

What in reality was being discussed today was making the Lake Whatcom watershed one giant urban growth area; protecting it with sewer and stormwater services, and paying people, who lack the necessary water services to build, for their development rights.

Now I doubt that the city council, the mayor or Messrs. McKinley or Neher see it that way – yet. But what the city hopes to accomplish by getting control of the water district may well be an unconscious step on that path. Given the finally released Total Maximum Daily Load Study for the lake, there remains no reasonable or legal grounds to continue to allow development in the watershed.

The GMA, and the Washington Supreme Court, have made it unavoidably clear that sewer and stormwater systems are barred from areas outside cities and their urban growth areas. If the city is to become the purveyor of water within the water district boundaries, they would clearly be extending or expanding urban water services in rural areas contrary to the law.

These urban services were barred in order to halt the conversion of undeveloped rural land into sprawling low density development. And that is what, and all, we should be focused on in taming this misdirected water district.

RCW 36.70A.110 (4) has established the rule. “In general, cities are the units of local government most appropriate to provide urban governmental services. In general, it is not appropriate that urban governmental services be extended to or expanded in rural areas except in those limited circumstances shown to be necessary to protect basic public health and safety and the environment and when such services are financially supportable at rural densities and do not permit urban development.”

Why the city, save for perhaps too great generosity with its taxpayers money, wants to bail out this water district and the folks who have made some very poor real estate investments is also lost on me. Though I understand that strong drive for charity.

Another big concern should be the implications of the TMDL study, and the consequences for the various governmental, and quasi governmental entities. Water district residents, the ratepayers of LWW&SD, should certainly be looking over their shoulders.

Bellingham should just sit back and hold the course. Continue to demand the water district live within the law. Ask them how much development they intend to facilitate in the watershed, and then tell them what the sewer treatment will cost. Get Ecology to stop new withdrawals from this closed basin. Let the water district come up against reality, and then extend charity when its recipient's will really show some appreciation for it.

Frankly, if the district goes ahead with their plan to spend millions on a new building, their ratepayers should show up with the pitchforks! There is no good reason, other than posturing, to start construction on it now. It would be wonderful to see how the commissioners would fare if they put that expenditure to a vote of their ratepayers.

Tom Pratum  //  Tue, Apr 29, 2008, 8:31 pm

As you know, I don’t entirely agree with you regarding the “need” for the city to acquire the water district. Your argument seems to be that the water district can be brought under control by other forces, we don’t need the city to take them over.

For at least 15 years that is how we have operated, and look at what has happened: the water district has approved each and every paying developer extension agreement that reached them, without so much as a question of its water quality impacts.

They may be wrong, but they haven’t been stopped. As you well know, folks have sued; large sums have been paid to attorneys on both sides. Let’s face it, the water district - even being the relatively small governmental entity that they are - has a large financial resource to draw on, and they will use that to push forward an agenda of full-buildout of the watershed. As was sadly demonstrated by Sherilyn Wells and the Clean Water Alliance in their gallant fight over the Lake Louise Sewer Interceptor, LWWSD has the upper hand in the war of attrition.

The entire watershed should be under the control of a single entity if possible, and right now we have 3; one of which cares little for the fate of this water resource. If the city and the water district merge, we will be 2/3 of the way there, and we will have removed a most developer friendly, and watershed unfriendly group of folks.

Tom Pratum

g.h. kirsch  //  Tue, Apr 29, 2008, 11:08 pm

Our disagreement is very limited, Tom. 

I am a long ways to supporting the takeover, but am concerned about two things: the water district’s undisclosed costs resulting from deferred maintenance on its system; and policies of future city governments.

It was not so long ago that the city chose to extend its water system out the Guide unlawfully to be in place in time to develop Caitac when it was expected to be part of Bellingham’s urban area expansion.

Presently, the city will serve well to protect the lake.  The Pike administration, as well as the current council, are addressing this issue admirably. 

In particular, the mayor is going way beyond what I ever expected, to work with the county and state to get this problem under control.

A political solution always seems quick and therefore attractive.  But with changing political winds, and changing administrations, come changing philosophies.

What we need most is a legal determination that any extension and/or expansion of water services outside the area designated for urban growth is contrary to the law; whether by the water district or an ensuing city administration.

Second we need to have Ecology, or have the courts order Ecology, enforce the prohibition on new water withdrawals from the lake and its surface and subsurface tributaries.

This would mean prohibiting new hookups that rely on water rights that have not been put to beneficial use.

Until it is illegal to build in the watershed, some other political effort will eventually undo what we hope will be done.

As you correctly note, the Clean Water Alliance was ultimately out resourced by the water district. 

However, for the near future, the city is indeed proactive about protecting the lake.  And they certainly won’t be out resourced by the water district should it come to a legal contest.

And in the years since Sherilyn Wells stood up against the water district, significant decisions regarding water allocation, species protection, and growth management have radically changed the lay of the land.

The opportunity for a legal success that will last is in reach.

John Watts  //  Mon, May 12, 2008, 6:02 pm

The Water District has consistently given lip-service to protecting the Reservoir, then taken actions directly counter to that lip-service!

A merger or consolidation should it happen, will not totally resolve this problem, but it can be a very positive step in that direction.

Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results!
Why not try a different approach that can consolidate decision-making, insure less likelihood of sewage spills, not rely on constant growth for revenues, and gain equitable stability of systems, rates and future expectations?

Thank goodness this Mayor and Council have the courage of their convictions to advance this idea!
All the previous administrations combined did considerably less than this.

Neither pollyanna nor ‘scaredy-cat’ attitudes are justified by trying this prudent and long over-due approach.

Conjuring images of ancient sages debating the future of GMA can be fun, but will it help resolve things in the here and now?
Likewise, the weak analogy to the City’s decision to extend water & sewer lines under the Guide before major construction is done seems very thin soup indeed!

I can certainly understand the temptation towards paranoia at times, especially in long time road warriors.
But at some point, one has to decide to have confidence that efforts to find a better way deserve a chance to succeed!
We don’t get to rescind history, but we can affect it going forward. That’s what the City is trying to do, period.

I for one, hope there is significant progress made in this consolidation. There is certainly incentive enough to go around if the matter is looked objectively.

My 2 cents. More available on HamsterTalk.

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