Virgin on Business: The Water Retention Issue
Battles over industrial development revive the familiar agent provocateur of the West: H2O.
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A new toxic material is threatening the Northwest. It’s safe enough for human, animal and fish consumption in its natural state, but it can be seriously hazardous to economic development projects and political careers.
Its chemical name can be written as dihydrogen monoxide, or in shorthand as H2O. You know it as water.
Water — who owns it, who gets to use it for what purposes and how much, who pays whom (and how much), how it gets allocated when there’s not enough supply to meet all the demand — has long been serious business in the West. These days, the fighting occurs more often and gets more intense when it does.
The fight between the community and economic development groups including the Port of Tacoma over a Chinese plant to convert natural gas into liquid methanol was as much about water as either of those other two materials. Critics had a long list of objections to the plant, but at or near the top was water consumption, more than 10 million gallons a day. Why are we selling so much water to one industrial user for a payoff of just 260 jobs, they asked, when residents have been warned about droughts and water shortages?
Opponents of the plan tried to get measures on the ballot requiring public votes on industrial projects with big thirsts for water. The measures were blocked from reaching the ballot, but by then, project sponsors had left town, leaving behind recriminations and ominous noises about the political longevity of those who backed the proposal, such as port commissioners.
Water was also the subject of a fight over a proposed bottled-water plant in the small Columbia gorge town of Cascade Locks, Oregon. In that case, a ballot measure opposing large water-bottling plants made it to the electorate and a ban was approved by the voters of Hood River County, even though voters in the town itself supported the project.
The company that wanted to build that plant was Nestlé Waters North America, which more recently went to the southeast Washington town of Waitsburg with a proposal for a $50 million, 50-job facility that would consume 150 million gallons annually. Within a few weeks of that project’s unveiling, the mayor of Waitsburg resigned after an uproar from community residents and some council members.
Contentiousness isn’t a new ingredient in bottled water, but its proportion seems to have spiked in recent years. Niagara Water opened a plant in Pierce County’s town of Frederickson in 2014 to minimal uproar. While it’s a large water user, the Niagara plant’s consumption is a fraction of what the Tacoma methanol plant would have taken. Still, timing is everything, and had that plant been proposed in 2016, the outcome might have been sharply different.
Bottled water represents a few drops in the bucket of the big-picture story: more people clamoring to use what is, for the moment, a finite supply. There are more people here. There are more businesses here using more water. (You didn’t think all those craft breweries magically generated their own water, did you?) More water is wanted for agricultural irrigation, for power generation, for salmon.
Solutions exist, and they vary in degrees of practicality, effectiveness and cost. You can simply put out the “no vacancy” sign and bring economic activity to a halt. Too, desalination will become widespread when it stops being such an expensive energy hog. But the most promising wellspring — and largely untapped — is conservation.
Compared to what electric utilities and their customers have been doing for decades, water conservation is in its infancy. People are working on how to reduce water loss in municipal water and farmland irrigation systems and how to cut water consumption in industrial processes as well. The more they learn and the faster they apply these lessons, the sooner those overheated fights will get some cooling water dumped on them.
Monthly columnist BILL VIRGIN is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.