Don’t throw the baby out with the drinking water

In the Olympia area, three cities are attempting to take the water rights from a company that's trying to create 200 family-wage, union manufacturing jobs.

  • Friday, October 3, 2008 2:54am
  • Opinion

In the Olympia area, three cities are attempting to take the water rights from a company that’s trying to create 200 family-wage, union manufacturing jobs. If the cities succeed, they will put the company out of business.

Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater city councils voted to condemn water rights bought by All-American Bottled Water Corp., the buyer of the old Olympia brewery in Tumwater. The cities say they will use the water to supply future needs.

All-American, which had difficulties putting the financing together to convert the brewery to a bottled water plant, recently secured $125 million to fund its project. The company says it’s willing to sell excess water to the local governments. The company even offered to transfer the water rights to the cities in exchange for a lease agreement that guarantees them 2.5-million gallons a day.

At this point, most council members apparently would rather put the company out of business and kill 200 good union jobs than allow All-American to keep enough of its water to operate.

Ironically, the local governments had the opportunity to buy the old brewery and its accompanying water rights when Miller Brewing Co. offered the plant for sale a few years ago, but passed on the deal. Now, after All-American has invested almost $40 million in good faith to launch the new business, the cities feel compelled to take the water rights for fear that All-American could lose them under state water law, allowing others to file for the rights – a legitimate concern.

The problem is their “all or nothing” approach precludes All-American from receiving any water – the only ingredient in its product – even though they assured the cities it would not let the water rights lapse.

This is disturbingly similar to what happened during the drought in 2000 when the government essentially killed the aluminum industry in this state by taking its energy supplies for the “public good.” Even though aluminum companies were paid for their power, they lost the key ingredient – low cost, reliable electricity – which created thousands of family-wage, good paying union jobs.

What good is there when the government kills the jobs the public needs in order to make a living? Have we now come to the point where government decides which companies live or die? Using the power of condemnation, government can take control of critical resources that companies and industries need in order to survive, all in the name of public good.

Is this a harbinger of things to come as new fresh water supplies diminish? Will government seek to condemn other industrial or agricultural water sources to meet their growing needs in other cities?

It could be, unless some reasonable leaders step forward with a strategy that allows All-American to survive and share its water with the cities surrounding our state capital.

Meeting demands for future growth is not easy. But robbing Peter to pay Paul will never work in the long run. Government should not pick winners and losers; it should find ways to meet demand in a reasoned, balanced way.

Part of the answer to meeting our future water needs is conservation programs that work. A good example is Barrie, Ontario, which is approximately the size of those three Puget Sound cities. Its water also comes from wells, and city leaders began implementing a total water conservation program in 1995.

It started with a comprehensive water audit looking at usage in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and lawn watering.

For example, Barrie officials found water usage jumped by 40 percent during summer months. They set an even/odd day cycle for lawn watering, allowing sprinklers to be turned on between midnight and 6 a.m. To encourage people to find alternative methods for watering lawns and gardens, water collected from rain barrels and gutters was exempt. In addition, the city provides $70 rebates to citizens installing low-flow flush toilets.

The point is public officials must look for solutions that protect jobs that create the taxes necessary to pay for police and fire protection, road and street repair and local schools. All-American will provide 200 family-wage union jobs and 850 secondary jobs. Hopefully, area council members won’t throw those jobs out with the drinking water.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business

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