Lawsuit Halts Water Rights Ballot Initiatives

by John Bartley

This article was originally published in The Pierce Progressive ( The author granted reprint permission. More information can be found at

Two local business organizations, together with the Port of Tacoma, have joined in a lawsuit to halt the ballot efforts of Save Tacoma Water, a citizen conservation group. In addition, the plaintiffs ask that Save Tacoma Water be ordered to pay the expenses of the litigation.

The ballot initiatives — one for an ordinance and one for the city charter — would require voter approval of any new application for water rights in excess of one million gallons per day. That idea was born last year as part of the grassroots opposition to the now defeated mega-methanol plant, which by design would have consumed ten million gallons of fresh water per day.

The lawsuit calls for an immediate halt to all petitioning. But the hugely successful drive has already collected the required number of petitions for both initiatives and the first set (for the ordinance) has already been submitted (as of June 15).

In announcing their action, the “business leaders” cite both legal and ideological grounds. Their press release mentions, as precedent, a case in Spokane, in which the court apparently voided people’s local water rights. Of course, any available legal strategies will be employed, if they seem to be relevant.

In any case, the main emphasis in the press announcement is the notion that the proposed initiatives would “chill economic development in the county if they are allowed to go to a public vote, whether or not they passed.”

Of 6,000 commercial users of Tacoma water, only two currently meet the extreme threshold of one million gallons per day. One of them is the well known paper mill, responsible in large part for the “Aroma of Tacoma” stigma of yesteryear. The other is the amusingly-named Niagara Bottling Company, which continued to buy a million gallons a day during last summer’s drought.

So where’s the economic chill? In other words, what type of business would face interference? If anything, the presence of new polluting industries in a residential area, squandering water during a period of drought, could be a severe economic burden.
The city, having approved the ballot initiative, is also defendant in the lawsuit. However, shortly after the suit was announced, the city decided to join it. “To the extent that the issues raised by the port don’t adequately address the issues that the city sees from its perspective with the initiatives, we’ll be filing what’s called a cross claim to assert those issues and make sure that when the court is looking at it, the court ends up looking at all the issues,” said city attorney Elizabeth Pauli.

It seems odd that Pauli, who in March helped prepare the ballot initiative and carefully shepherded it through the legal roadmap, has suddenly decided to join the lawsuit of the political business networks. What possibly could have caused her change of heart? The mayor’s claim that Tacoma cannot “pick and choose” its customers sounds like nonsense, given that no one can bypass the city’s existing water-use permit process.
Truth is the first casualty in any war, including a propaganda war.

Anti-business interests are blamed whenever the Chamber of Commerce feels its investment schemes may have to be scrutinized. Accordingly, it is the danger of a stifled business environment — not the legal case — that is given the most shrift in their media publicity against the initiative. Bruce Kendall, CEO of the Economic Development Board, says “The fact that [the ballot initiative]’s illegal and unconstitutional is, from our perspective, almost beside the point.”

Translation: The profits of the wealthy elite must be protected from public needs, so they are making up any technicality to defeat the democratic process.

The lawsuit complains that the citizens’ water-use initiative would “Surrender important community developments to the subjective and unpredictable will of unidentified ‘majorities,’ and “expose the Port or its tenants to litigation over legitimate water uses.”
Given the plaintiff’s role in the recent Methanol debacle, it might be a good idea to encourage greater public oversight — not less.

Residents of Tacoma, Federal Way and other communities look out on the waters of Puget Sound and they see a finite life-giving resource, threatened with drought, as we learned last year. Members of the corporate establishment look out and see a chance for a vast petrochemical windfall.

A letter from Jeff Milchen to the April 18 New Yorker expresses it quite well: “America’s independent businesses—especially those serving local residents — have more in common with average citizens than with the giant corporations that hold so much sway over our courts and legislative bodies.”

John Bartley, a resident of Tacoma, is a member of the Tacoma Chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Editor’s Note: On Friday, July 1, (after the article was written) Pierce County Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin ruled that the Save Tacoma Water initiatives exceeded the scope of the local initiative power and the authority of the city of Tacoma. He granted a permanent injunction, preventing the initiatives from appearing on the ballot. Save Tacoma Water had a partial victory; they do not have to pay plaintiffs legal fees, estimated at $250,000.

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