I am running for PUD to put the public back in Public Utility District. Right now, it is much more an industry utility district.
Public Utility District commissioner is by far the most important office that most people in the county know little or nothing about. Most of what it does falls under the radar of even those who watch other local government bodies closely. It is hugely important for two reasons. First, it is the water supplier to Cherry Point including the coal terminal, if permitted. Second, the PUD is a primetime player in water in Whatcom County and holds rights that are, for the most part, senior to all other groups except the tribes. Most of these rights to Nooksack River water are unexercised, meaning that it will play a very large role in future water allocation decisions. And if you have been paying attention at all, water rights and availability are emerging as giant issues for the county and elsewhere in the years ahead.
I got upset when, in 2010, the incumbent acting on behalf of the PUD joined Craig Cole and others in signing a letter asking the state to cut back on its plans for further studies of the aquatic reserves off Cherry Point before issuing new permits there. He felt that such studies would be a barrier to Gateway Pacific terminal construction. It is flat out wrong for a PUD to lobby the state government on behalf of a single prospective customer.
A year earlier, in 2009, Pacific International Terminals (the Gateway Pacific coal terminal proponent) bought from Chevron the rights to 2 billion gallons of water a year from the Nooksack River. I believe this transfer was illegal because it did not meet state standards for such a transfer of rights.
These purchased rights were set to expire next year, but rather than wait till the decision on coal terminal permitting was in, the PUD last year unanimously and unnecessarily approved extension of those rights for 30 years to 2042. In the light of known water conflicts and potential shortages, the district was shortsightedly irresponsible to extend those rights to 5.33 million gallons of water per day. I would have voted against such an extension. Now, watering down the 40 acres of 60-foot-high coal piles to keep them from combusting and filling our lungs with coal dust will be absolutely necessary if Gateway Pacific is permitted. That's why we are fighting the permitting; but, the PUD should not have been a Gateway Pacific facilitator. It should serve the public interest. It hardly fits the first stated mission of PUDs around the state, namely to "conserve the water and power resources of the state of Washington for the benefit of the people thereof..."
Like most residents of Whatcom County, I oppose building a coal terminal at Cherry Point. Climate change is the tragic reality and coal burning is the chief culprit. It is certifiably crazy for American taxpayers to be subsidizing the shipping of coal to China.
These two past actions of the PUD made me want to run. Clearly, change is needed. But, there are future reasons as well -- chiefly, water allocation decisions. There are competing interests. I want to see that it is the public water goes where it will create the greatest public good.
The Public Utility District's general manager, Steve Jilk, stated at a recent Grange forum that he did not foresee a water shortage in Whatcom County. Farmers and other constituencies, however, are not as sanguine in their water outlook. The Lummi and the Nooksack are clearly concerned over in-stream flow.
Perhaps, the PUD's lack of concern over future water shortages relates to its never having modeled the effects of changing climate scenarios. It plans to do so next year.
I want to lend my planning, analysis and research expertise to these studies. These are functions that I headed for a Fortune 500 company before retiring to Bellingham.
Finally, the PUD needs more visibility. Commission meetings should be changed from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. so that the working public can attend.
Among others, my candidacy is endorsed by the Whatcom County Democratic and Green parties.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is one of a series of commentaries from candidates in the Aug. 5 primary election. Bob Burr is a candidate for District 1 commissioner for Whatcom County Public Utility District No. 1. The top two vote getters in the primary will be on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. The district has countywide authority to supply electric and water services. It is governed by a three-member nonpartisan board of commissioners who serve staggered six-year terms. District 1 covers south Bellingham and southeast Whatcom County with boundaries that match those for the Whatcom County Council.