Billions added to Washington water bills, but what did we buy for it?

The state Dept. of Ecology is moving ahead with new water quality standards, based in part on the convoluted “fish consumption rate” that we’ve discussed on SGW before.

It’s a complicated topic, so first, a compliment. The Skagit Valley Herald’s recent coverage of this issue was highly readable, organized, and fact-based. It’s the opposite of the listicles, click bait, and cheap linking that passes for journalism these days, where sites simply react to (usually wrong) information, get some clicks out of it, and move on. The Herald’s story is original reporting, with on-the-ground interviews of sources, on a topic that’s important to the public. That’s immensely valuable.

State of confusion
It’s striking that, after all the process and public input and rewriting of this rule, there’s still so much uncertainty about the rollout of these water quality standards. The “how” and the “how much” are still very much open questions.

The big “how” question is how to achieve the standards when the technology to detect some of these trace amounts, let alone treat the water to the standards, doesn’t yet exist. The manager of Mount Vernon’s wastewater plant told the Skagit Valley Herald:

“’Our ability to test for these chemicals now is not accurate enough to measure down to these super low concentrations,’ Schroeder said. ‘If we get to the point where we can measure it we may have a problem.’”

The “how much” is also yet unknown, but the Association of Washington Cities estimated a $7.4 billion cost for treatment upgrades, based on a report it commissioned. What it will cost to install technologies in the future that don’t yet exist is, of course, a further unknown.

This amounts to a classic under-the-radar tax increase. If Olympia raised state taxes by $7.4 billion, you would have heard all about it. Because it’s a state bureaucracy-driven rule that others must comply with and pay for, you hear very little about it. It amounts to a $7.4 billion+ tax increase all the same, one that will be borne mostly by municipal water customers through higher water bills.

Best use of money?
What are we buying for these billions? The Skagit Valley Herald explains the basis for the standards:

“The pollution limits in the rule are based on a 176-pound person being able to safely drink 2.4 liters — or 10 cups — of water per day, and safely consume 175 grams — or about six ounces — of fish per day.

“The Ecology rule estimates that if a 176-pound person eats 175 grams of fish per day over the course of 70 years, they would have a one in 1 million chance of developing cancer because of toxins that may be in the fish.”

I think we can all agree, a lower cancer risk is a good thing. That doesn’t mean we can’t remain skeptical that this is the best use of $7.4 billion to achieve that or other goals. That’s a lot of money for a one-in-a-million chance of cancer from water toxins after 70 years of consuming 10 cups of water and 175 grams of fish daily.

The flaw throughout this process has been the (some might say willful) ignorance about the sources of fish consumption in Washington. We live in a global market. Is the bulk of fish consumed in Washington from our waters? How much is from inland waters? It’s been the ignored topic through all of this.

The message from Ecology about all these concerns seems to be, don’t worry about it. Ecology’s spokesperson said in the Herald’s story that there’s a lot of flexibility as cities and businesses try to comply with the rules (the parameters of that flexibility is at the discretion of the agency, of course, which brings up another set of concerns).

This whole process was driven by the EPA anyway, defenders argue, and if the federal agency was unhappy with Washington’s rule, it could have taken over the process and set the standards itself. But isn’t that alone the sign of a problem? It’s federal law driving a little-noticed state rule, one that involved scant discussion about priorities or best uses of money. Now we’re down a costly path with little accountability, because who, after all, was truly in charge?
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.