$250 per month sewer rates? That’s not smart policy

How would your family budget fare if your water and sewer shot up to $3,000 a year? That’s a possibility if wiser heads don’t prevail on Washington’s update of our water quality standards.

The state’s water quality standards are based on what is known as the fish consumption rate (FCR). This article from Washington State Wire provides a good explanation of the FCR and how it is calculated. The higher the state calculates the FCR, the more stringent water quality standards become – with the potential for standards that are massively expensive and still unattainable. Environmental groups are pressing the state Dept. of Ecology for a very high FCR. From the Wire story:

For the last two decades, for surface-water standards, the state has used a fish-consumption estimate of 6.5 grams a day, about a half-pound a month. Regulators say the federal Environmental Protection Agency now favors a new approach – it prefers that states base their estimates on the populations that eat the most fish, rather than on an average consumption figure, meaning maximum protection for everyone. Tribal members and sports-fishermen are pressing the state to make that change; the group Waterkeepers Washington has already filed a lawsuit.

Regulators insist they have to do something. Ecology water-quality manager Kelly Susewind told a Senate committee last month that the feds could impose new rules on the state if Washington sits idly by. “We’re working hard to keep this in state control,” he said. Yet there are many skeptics: It’s not as if the state has been ordered to do anything.

The problem with a high FCR? Even using the latest and best (and very expensive) technologies, the standards will be unattainable for most local governments. The quality standards may drive massive spending by utilities with little actual environmental benefit to show for it. A report commissioned by the Association of Washington Cities and others found that upgrading Bellingham’s facilities could result in customers paying as high as $250 a month:

The report’s key findings were that even if cities installed the most advanced technology available today, they still would not be able to meet the new water quality standards being proposed by the state. And, implementing that technology could cost ratepayers billions of dollars (for example, a five-million-gallon-a-day system would see an additional $75-$210 million in upgrade costs). The City of Bellingham estimated that it would cost $1 to $1.8 billion and require monthly residential utility bills of $200-$250 to implement this technology in their community.

Not only will the FCR have profound impacts on ratepayers and local governments, but businesses are concerned too. Faced with impossibly high standards, some businesses will choose to locate elsewhere while others will lose their edge against competitors. Out-of-state businesses scouting new locations may write off Washington from the start.

It’s time for state leaders to take a step back and consider if the process is driving us toward a rational conclusion and, if not, whether the process itself needs to change. The reality is, if not being driven by a process already in place, few political leaders would choose unattainable standards and massively expensive sewer and water rates. Lost in the discussion is effectiveness for our environmental protection dollars. Surely we could “buy” better environmental results by focusing on other priorities than unattainable water quality standards.

Former Auburn mayor Pete Lewis has a must-read op-ed in Sunday’s News Tribune, giving his perspective from his successful time in local government. Says Lewis:

What’s worse, because the new standards can’t be met — and in some cases can’t even be measured — local utility customers will be paying a lot more without buying appreciably better water quality.

That’s not responsible use of public dollars.

We all want clean water. We all want to pass on a better environment to our children and grandchildren. But we need to be realistic and we need balance.

— 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.