Quality of municipal water supplies: The Case of Federal Way, Washington

Lakehaven Utility District's wastewater treatment plant provides water and sewer service to approximately 112,000 people in an area of approximately 35 square miles, including most of Federal Way and small portions of Des Moines, Auburn, Pacific, Tacoma, and Milton, Washington. The utility brought on stream a $220 million water supply project in collaboration with some neighboring water utility districts to supply 65 million gallons of water per day, including the city of Covington, Kent and Tacoma, Washington. This is not a small feat considering that many large cities in the United State use about 150 million gallons per gallon per day. Much of this water is used to carry waste away from the cities and a small fraction of the supply is used as drinking water.

The recent effort of Lakehaven Utility District to flush neighborhood water pipes has had tongues wagging about the exact quality of the water supply. Not that the quality of the water from the utility is necessarily in doubt, but the question of neighborhoods having to deal with some variable water quality during the flushing periods, makes one wonder. The audit of the utility which I could readily lay hands on was that of the calendar year of 1998, about eleven years ago, in which the States’ Auditor’s office, found the utility as being in compliance with State laws and regulations and its own policies and procedures. What exactly are the state’s laws and company policies and procedures?

We all tend to believe that state laws and regulations are responsive or perfect. That these laws and regulations take care of the concern of the citizens regarding subjects that affect their interest. Is that necessarily true? Think again. Consider how state laws and regulations are made. Your representative legislators seldom invent an idea, draft the idea into a bill, communicate with the public and press, the merits of the bill, nor do they lead substantial effort in lobbying at both houses of legislature and with the executive branch. What in reality happens is that groups of non-legislator help draft most bills, explain away the merits of these bills to the legislators themselves, and create the atmosphere of political legitimacy for the bill. These non-legislators are often lobbyist, bureaucrats, lawyers, academics and sometimes, in very rare cases, citizens. Can any citizen resident in Federal Way today claim that he has or had made a substantial effort to contribute to the laws and regulations that guide water supply from Lakehaven utility to residents of Federal Way? Probably Not. Thus to a large extent, the basis of the last audit which Lakehaven went through to establish the utility as meeting the expected criteria for supplying clean and ‘healthy’ water, was actually written up by someone who probably does not live in Federal Way, is not confronted yearly with the challenge of having to drink water with some variable taste and probably subscribed to the essence of having a bill of that nature in place. Is this a repudiation of the legislative process? Not exactly, what I am driving down in this blog is that the criteria and standard which a utility goes through to be certified as consistent with the interest of the people, is neither drafted by the impacted citizens themselves nor their representatives, as we are made to believe.

What we propose as residents of Federal Way, Washington, is a citizen watch group in combination with the efforts of the state auditor’s office in checking routinely the utility’s compliance with State laws and policies. We will allow the board of the utility to address compliance issues with company’s policies and procedures. Without a citizen watch group, it is rather difficult to discover the intermittent problem experienced by residents of the city when the utility goes about flushing its pipes just before the seasons’ change.
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