Water in Washington state: citizens organizing to have a say in Anacortes
by Sandra Spargo On Sept. 13, 2010, the people of Anacortes, Wash., opened their Sunday paper to read the headline, “Anacortes water, bottled?” The next evening, the City of Anacortes, Wash., approved selling five million gallons of municipal water from the Skagit River for thirty years to Tethys Enterprises of Everett, Wash. The contract can be extended to 2040 and contains two optional, five-year renewal terms. The contract allows Tethys, a startup venture capital company, to flip the proposed one million square foot beverage bottling company in three years. Anacortes citizens had neither an opportunity to review nor comment on the contract’s implications before the city council’s approval of the Tethys contract. It was approved the next day, Sept. 14, 2010. According to the Skagit Valley Herald, Mayor Dean Maxwell had met with Tethys and Anacortes city council members for five previous months, exchanging information on an individual basis, and, thus, city officials were not required to discuss the business proposal in an open, public session. An interesting note is that Mayor Ray Stephanson of Everett, Wash., turned down Steve Winters, CEO of Tethys Enterprises, regarding a similar municipal water contract after fifteen months of negotiations.
Due to the appalling lack of City of Anacortes-citizen communication, I searched the Internet for local environmental groups that would band together to confront the Tethys contract decision. Unfortunately, there were none. Either local environmental groups are tied to the city with municipal grants/projects or are exhausted from battling the city over development and policy issues that affect neighborhoods and the environment. However, my persistency found people online who were willing to come to my home and hear Dr. Rebecca Wolfe of the Alliance for Democracy and the Sierra Club speak about environmental issues related to beverage and water bottling companies and the corporate control of water. She gave us support when no one else stepped up to the plate—and she has continued to guide us. From this initial group gathering, four of us are finding our grassroots way to educating the community about water as a sustainable human right. On Jan. 25, 2011, we organized “Your Water—What You Should Know” at the Anacortes Library. Eighty-six people attended, which is a good showing in this island community. Outstanding speakers shared their knowledge: Ingrid Tohver of the Climate Impacts Group of the University of Washington, Seattle; Mark Savoca of the U.S. Geological Survey, Tacoma; Jen Kingfisher of The Plastics Project, Port Townsend Marine Science Center; and Erica Pickett of the Anacortes City Council. Although Pickett said that she had no information on Tethys’ negotiating progress of land purchase, she shared Anacortes’ municipal water history in a Power Point presentation.
Although we have now formed a citizens’ State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) group of twelve people, we do not know when the SEPA process will proceed. Tethys has until Oct. 2012 to inform the City of Anacortes where it will site the beverage bottling company. The SEPA process offers only a two-week window for citizens’ written input after Tethys applies for a building permit.
We realize that SEPA is favorable towards corporations, so we are now looking to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which conducts Democracy Schools. I attended Democracy School on Feb. 18 and 19 in Seattle and must admit to being somewhat overwhelmed by the powers of corporations. However, we are in contact with Kai Huschke, CELDF’s Washington State representative in Spokane. Kai has generously offered to come to Anacortes to teach us how to assert our citizens’ rights about business sustainability.
Moreover, the Skagit River belongs to all surrounding communities. The City of Anacortes contracted with a company for water-intensive uses, allowing a dangerous precedent that negates sustainability and impacts future generations of the Skagit River Basin.