Fire and Water
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
FIRE AND WATER: This week, state regulators approved protections for electric and natural gas utility customers who are struggling to pay their bills due to financial impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission ordered investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities (IOUs) to continue a moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment until April 2021. Utilities will continue to waive deposits for new customers and all late fees through October 2021.
The UTC organized a COVID-19 stakeholder workgroup to facilitate development of guidelines so that customers experiencing economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic maintain access to essential services after the proclamation expires.
This story illustrates the powerful and progressive way Washington has organized public oversight of investor-owned utilities, regional giants that operate near-monopolies in their service areas. These near-monopolies make practical economic sense to avoid duplication in water mains, power plants, telephone communication and transportation infrastructure; however, there are drawbacks to providing utilities with unlimited power. If a for-profit utility refused to provide a particular service, what is the recourse? The citizens who shaped the first state constitution were largely farmers, in need of water and electrification in rural areas—services private utilities were loath to provide, unable to guarantee profits for their shareholders.
These citizens created public utilities to run in parallel with IOUs, and they used those entities to electrify rural farms and help shape them into a $51 billion agricultural industry in Washington.
Public utilities and their elected leadership continue to operate in this capacity, providing alternatives and opportunities to expand utility service in areas underserved by private IOUs—and, in the case of the UTC, helping shave down the hardest edges of for-profit monopoly by limiting or controlling rate increases or service constriction. Naturally, this creates a great deal of interest (and independent expenditures) from these utilities in special elections for public utility commissioners.
It’s no secret that Whatcom County Public Utility District No. 1 has become moribund in its role of providing utility service alternatives to underserved areas of the county. The agency provides power to a single customer, and its enormous capacity to be a stakeholder in helping to solve some of the county’s water issues is comatose. With access to water and clean energy, the PUD could play a leadership role to address climate change.
Ten years ago, an effort by the PUD to catalog and gain access to the county’s dark fiber—unused fiber optic and cable capacity that might be put to use in serving broadband telecommunication services—was stillborn; however, while the tangle of service providers has thinned, the digital divide remains and could be filled in an expanded role of the PUD.
Commissioner Jeff McClure has been a capable and knowledgable steward of the PUD. He is a likable and intelligent man. The Gristle has supported his election and reelection to multiple terms on the commission. But if the current commission is not accountable for 20 years of low fire from the agency, who is?
For these reasons, we support a change-up on the commission, and Christine Grant is that change.
Somewhat below the radar in the current election, the state Dept. of Ecology recently ranked the Nooksack watershed (WRIA1) as their number one priority for quantifying and prioritizing water rights claims. This is a story 30 years past resolution, and one where continued delays have benefited the most egregious of withdrawals from the Nooksack basin.
“These waters provide critical habitat for many species, including Chinook salmon that provide the exclusive diet for southern resident killer whales,” Ecology noted in their report. “Ecology faces significant difficulties regulating water use in the Nooksack watershed, where there is unresolved and widespread noncompliance with water law. Water users, including tribes, all face uncertainty about their own legal rights and vulnerability to each other’s potential claims.
“WRIA 1 water users, tribes and local governments have worked for over 30 years to address their water challenges,” Ecology continued. “While parties agree about protecting fish habitat, they have not reached resolution about how to balance needs for fish with needs for farms and communities. Broad disputes remain about how much water should remain in streams and how the law should apply to water users.”
Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu and other local leaders say they’d prefer the solution to come from the local level rather than imposed as an adjudication in federal court, but it is difficult to see a path forward on the issue.
We’ve noted before that some members of the designated Planning Unit for WRIA 1 draw their benefits from delaying a solution rather than arriving at one; and it is notable in that context that local advocacy groups like Whatcom Family Farmers who oppose adjudication also appear to be lining up in support behind Commissioner McClure.
The PUD doesn’t have a role in the adjudication issue—but as a major purveyor of water, they could have a role.
Several years back, PUD General Manager Steve Jilk offered to help catalogue county water resources as part of the district’s role as an active participant in the Planning Unit. This expanded role could advance the concept of a drainage-based management (DBM) model supported by farmers and their advocates. And, conceivably, an expanded role for the PUD as a water purveyor might even help to consolidate and sunset the scores of independent water associations and water districts that make competing claims on Nooksack River resources. For anything like that to happen, the PUD is going to have to get more fire in its furnace. This election could ignite that.