This Nov. 4, voters will decide who will take one of three spots on a commission that manages billions of gallons of public water rights and millions of dollars in cash flow in Whatcom County’s Public Utility District No. 1 race.
Over the last month or so, incumbent PUD Commission President Jeffrey McClure and challenger Bob Burr have made the rounds at local candidate forums to debate issues from water rights and conservation to a 30-year water contract with SSA Marine, the company that wants to build a coal export terminal at Cherry Point.
Burr maintains that he is running to “put the ‘public’ back in Public Utility District,” saying the utility currently serves more as an Industrial Utility District.
“Resources must go to the people and the farms that feed them,” Burr told a Whatcom Tea Party forum audience Oct. 1
Most of the PUD’s nearly $15 million in revenue in 2013 came from a handful of industrial water customers near Cherry Point, including the BP refinery, Phillips 66 Ferndale refinery, and Alcoa Intalco Works. The PUD also serves a few dozen irrigation customers.
McClure has said by providing utilities to Cherry Point, the PUD supports some of the highest-paying jobs in the county.
“We only use 30 percent of our total water right,” McClure told a League of Women Voters audience Sept. 27. “We’ve done a good job of conserving.”
A decade ago, McClure continued, Cherry Point industries used 18 million gallons of water per day. Today they use 14 million gallons per day.
“We worked closely with industries like Intalco to reduce water consumption by as much as 75 percent,” McClure said.
McClure said the PUD also has made investments in the environment by supporting groups like the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association with grants to restore salmon habitat.
Burr said he would support studies to see if the PUD could get involved in using solar or wind farms to provide electricity. He also would support the PUD providing broadband.
Burr has told voters that he does not have the “track record” McClure does, repeatedly questioning why the PUD awarded a 30-year contract for 2 billion gallons of water per year to SSA Marine, the company proposing the Gateway coal terminal. Burr was arrested for lying on the railroad tracks in 2011 to block trains as part of an anti-coal demonstration.
“That contract was set to expire in 2015. There was no need whatsoever to extend that for 30 years,” Burr told the League audience in September. “To commit 2 billion gallons a year for 30 years to me was nonsensical and nearly evil.”
Extending the contract that SSA acquired when it purchased the site, McClure countered, was par for the course and similar to steps taken with existing Cherry Point industries.
“We made the decision to extend that contract for a 30-year period as we have done with all industries,” McClure said. “With the stipulation that we would provide that if and only if land-use permits are granted for Gateway Pacific Terminal.”
He continued that thought at a Whatcom Tea Party forum a few days later.
“We don’t feel we should be playing politics with these resources,” McClure told the crowd. “We put the very important environmental discussion where it belongs — in the (Environmental Impact Statement) process that will go on for a number of years.”
But Burr said the PUD had played a role in promoting the proposed terminal, when he believes it should play a neutral role.
“The PUD has been aiding the cause of a private industry,” Burr said. “I think that’s wrong for them to do.”
The PUD has rights to 53 million gallons of water a day, and currently produces more than 5 billion gallons a year, according to pudwhatcom.org. The PUD, a public corporation, has the right to provide water and electricity anywhere in the county.
To put that in context, McClure told the Tea Party audience, the Nooksack River near Ferndale had been flowing around 2,500 feet per second about the time of the forum. Combined, all of the industries at Cherry Point use 23 cubic feet per second.
“It is a small amount, but by no means an unimportant amount to support jobs,” McClure said.
The PUD is a nonpartisan commission. Commissioners serve six-year terms. District 1 covers the southern part of Bellingham and most of the county south of Mount Baker Highway. Commissioners must live in whichever of the three districts they hope to represent.
Though only District 1 voters weighed in on the PUD race for the primary, the entire county may vote for either candidate in the general election.