Water quality standards shouldn’t be unrealistic

February 9, 2014 

During my 12 years as mayor of Auburn, I always felt that my top responsibility was to ensure that the city council and I were good stewards of our people’s money. We never wanted to spend public funds until we were sure that we would get results that would truly benefit city residents.

After years working with other suburban cities and getting to know mayors and council members, I’m confident that the majority of local officials feel similarly.

That’s why we’re worried about the state’s plans for updating its water quality standards. The state standards regulate the cleanliness of wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff from manufacturing plants, as well as output from municipal wastewater treatment facilities. The new standards under consideration could drive our monthly sewer service rates up dramatically.

Because of the way these standards are established, the first step is making an assumption about how much fish Washington residents consume. Different interests are lobbying hard for the state to set a fish consumption rate of at least 175 grams per day. That’s the equivalent of about 30 cans of tuna per month.

That’s a lot of tuna!

The Department of Ecology plans to unveil its proposed new rules later this spring. But it seems to be leaning toward the 30-can standard. If that happens and no other changes are made to the standard-setting formula, Washington could be saddled with new water quality standards so restrictive that they can’t be met with existing technologies.

That’s the problem: You and I can’t meet the standard. This is a serious problem for our municipal wastewater treatment plants that you and I pay the bill for every month. If our facilities across the state don’t comply with the standards, they face the potential of stiff fines and expensive third-party lawsuits. That’s your monthly utility bill going way up. There is also the possibility that our cities’ permits wouldn’t be renewed and they’d have to declare a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups.

This problem is beginning to emerge in Oregon, where the first municipal wastewater permits are coming up for renewal under new water quality standards that state adopted a couple years ago based on a 175-gram-per-day fish consumption rate.

Local governments must do everything they can to comply with the standards, even if they are unreasonable. This means spending millions of your dollars that will be passed on to you as the utility customers. In fact, the city of Bellingham estimates that the monthly sewer bill for city residents could jump from the current $35 to $200 or more per month.

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. An effective standard must drive environmental improvement while simultaneously enabling job creation and economic growth.

In contrast, a standard that can’t be met doesn’t drive meaningful improvement; it only produces more costs for employers and local governments alike and that means you and me paying more every month. At a time when our state economy is still recovering from recession, none of us can afford that.

Gov. Jay Inslee has brought together a wide range of stakeholders to advise him on the standard-setting process. They need to work together to come up with some creative ideas that will produce better outcomes — for our environment and our economy — than simply imposing an unattainable new water quality standard.

Pete Lewis served three terms as mayor of Auburn. He is currently the chairman of the board of trustees at Green River Community College.

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