Bottled Water Facility Stopped, Local Government Replaced
by: Francine St. Laurent Posted on: December 08, 2013
Editor’s Note: Citizens in Anacortes stopped what would have been North America’s largest bottled water facility. The locals engaged to vote out a mayor who had governed for twenty years, as well as key members of the city council. Learn how it happened.
By Francine St. Laurent
Local victories will change the world. Cliché? Perhaps. But in Anacortes, Washington the victory is pretty sweet.
In October 2013, concerned residents celebrated the downfall of a proposed 1-million-square-foot water bottling facility. The company, Tethys, would have sucked 5 million gallons of water per day from the Skagit River, via the municipal treatment facility, through 2030.
It would have been the largest facility of its kind in North America.
New to the community, it struck Sandra Spargo as odd when one Sunday in September 2010 she opened the newspaper and learned the city planned to sign a contract with Tethys the next morning.
“I was astounded,” Spargo said in an interview. “The citizens hadn’t been told anything about this. Being that water is becoming so precious, I thought citizens should be able to speak up.” [See here for Spargo’s Feb. 2012 Read the Dirt article on the facility.]
Spargo attended a study session put on by the city, which was switched to a standard city council meeting by Mayor Dean Maxwell. The public was not allowed to comment.
“I asked the councilmembers, ‘When is the public hearing?’ I was told, ‘There is none, there never will be,’” Spargo said.
The city council vote was taken. The contract was signed.
Spargo and her husband, who boats recreationally, moved to Anacortes from Poulsbo, Washington in April 2010 to be closer to the ocean and San Juan Islands.
Unable to find a local group to take on the issue, Spargo contacted the Sierra Club, and with other concerned residents formed Defending Water in the Skagit River Basin. The group later partnered with Alliance for Democracy, a movement to “end the corporate domination of our economy, our government, our culture, our media and the environment,” according to its website.
Tethys, a venture capital company named for the Greek goddess of clean water, first attempted to set up shop in Everett, but abandoned the idea following a 14-month negotiation. Everett would not sign a contract that did not guarantee a specified number of jobs, according to a HeraldNet article. Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson called it off.
But in Anacortes, where Mayor Maxwell supported a plant, it was the public that pushed back. Defending Water showed the film “Tapped,” about the bottled water industry, gave presentations at the public library and formed a listserv of over 1,800 people in which they sent educational emails and newsletters to spark discussion around the issue.
Spargo discovered that while Tethys had secured a contract with Anacortes, it did not have buyers. In September 2013, Maxwell received a letter from Tethys CEO Steve Winter, announcing the company would no longer pursue the proposed facility and that he planned to move to Ireland. On October 1, Maxwell received a letter from the company terminating the agreement between Tethys and the city. Maxwell sent an acknowledgement letter the following day.
Why was Anacortes successful? “I think that how you run a campaign depends upon where you’re located and the types of resources you have in the people,” Spargo said. Anacortes’ large retired community, which comprises 23 percent of its population, played a major role.
“It is a mix of blue collar and white collar and in some areas where they have had bottling issues you have a different mix of people who want to work in different ways,” Spargo said. “Everyone has his own approach. We had a lot of people show up at meetings who didn’t want to talk or make a comment, but they were there to sit in the seats, to fill the halls.”
“The listserv proved invaluable,” Spargo said. “When there were public hearings – that eventually did come about because Mayor Maxwell was being reprimanded by the public – people wanted to speak out about the water, the plastics and the [train] traffic [the facility would bring] and showed up in forces at City Hall and Skagit County meetings.”
Community engagement makes the difference.
In fall 2012, Spargo and a few others formed a “loosely knit” elections committee to achieve greater governmental transparency in Anacortes through changing leadership. This was in direct response to Mayor Maxwell, who denied public comment on selling water rights and negotiated the Tethys contract behind closed doors. Until November 2013, Maxwell had been Anacortes mayor since 1994.
“We wanted to work together to find somebody to run for mayor and people for city council who felt that government needs to be transparent and people have a right or a say in their community,” Spargo said.
Three of the four winning candidates for city council in November 2013 were supported by Spargo’s group. On January 1, 2014, Anacortes will welcome the first new mayor in 20 years. Laurie Gere was elected with 63 percent of the vote, according to her campaign website.
The City of Anacortes holds the senior water rights to the Skagit River, the third largest river on the West Coast. “The city uses water to attract business and that is where citizens drew the line: as a tool fine, but not as a commodity,” Spargo said.
Defending Water is taking a short break from its work, celebrating the election and Tethys turnaround. When the group reconvenes in 2014, it will decide how to focus its energy to best protect the Skagit River. As long as the water flows, the risk remains. Anacortes’ bountiful water attracts industry, such as oil refineries. The growing scarcity of sustainable sources of fresh water is giving way to what Spargo calls “water wars”.
Other communities are facing similar threats. Nestlè Waters North America, the largest water-bottling corporation in North America, has attempted to establish water-bottling facilities in Enumclaw, Wash., and explored options in Black Diamond and Orting, Wash—and across the country [Read the Dirt/Barnstead, NH: Establishing the Community Right to Water and Self-Governance].
Nestlè is pursuing a permit to construct a bottling plant in Cascade Locks, Oregon on the Columbia River. The proposal involves purchasing up to 100 million gallons of municipal water, drawn from Oxbow Spring, per year. Bark, an organization that provides resources for community action to protect and maintain the natural state of Mt. Hood National Forest, along with Keep Nestlè Out of the Gorge Coalition is working to discuss the potential issues with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has authority to issue the permit. At this time, no permit has been issued.
Local civic action is powerful. Anacortes offers proof.
“You banded together as a regional community to say you have a right and a say in how our region looks and operates,” wrote the board of Defending Water in its October newsletter. “No town or community stands alone. We depend upon one another to make sound and feasible decisions that affect our daily lives, environment and future generations.”
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