For over 90 years, the WestRock paper mill formed part of the industrial backbone of the Tacoma tide flats, its iconic presence in the Tacoma landscape an integral part of the region’s economic engine. Tacoma literally grew around WestRock, filling and expanding beyond its original footprint as the population and economic power of the City grew.
While Tacoma Public Utilities may have been formed 40 years prior to WestRock beginning production on the Tideflats, the shared 90 years of history and the significant demand for water in the paper making process has meant that the very design and function of our water system was built in tandem with WestRock’s needs. The large volume of water they used- about a third of Tacoma Water’s daily demand- kept the water flowing rapidly through our system, helping to keep supplies fresh for all customers. WestRock’s closure will have impacts not only on how the water system is operated, but also financial effects that will require rate increases.
To comprehend the true scale of WestRock’s water demands and the importance of their usage to the overall functionality of the system, it helps to understand that the next top five largest water users add up to only 21 percent of WestRock’s use. Put another way, it would take over 100,000 additional residential customers using an average amount of water daily to add up to one day of WestRock’s usage.
Building a utility like a water system is different than other kinds of businesses. A water system is engineered to move water from point to point, maintaining appropriate pressure, quantity, and quality. In the case of Tacoma Water, most of our water supply comes from the Green River Watershed. This water, filtered at the source, is carried in pipes many miles until it reaches our customers. WestRock was an important piece of the engineering puzzle of how water moves around in our system. Their departure from our community means we need to rethink our water delivery, and because infrastructure like pipes isn’t adaptable, there isn’t a quick fix.
Indeed, the challenge presented by WestRock closing their paper making operations means Tacoma Water will be spending more money to keep the water flowing with the same quality customers and our regulators expect. It’s not just the loss of the water revenue WestRock provided, but the operational impacts to the larger system that combined create an unprecedented challenge on our shared water resources in the Tacoma Water service area. Indeed, our water quality in the Tacoma Water service area could be impacted if we aren’t able to close the revenue gap left by WestRock’s closure.
We are working with our Public Utility Board and Tacoma City Council to explore a variety of rate increase options that will help stabilize the loss and ensure water quality despite WestRock’s departure. To help offset the impact of rate increases for our income constrained customers, we’re recommending additional bill credit assistance. We’ve also looked at ways to cut costs through delaying or cancelling planned projects and increasing our wholesale market revenue. Customers can attend one of our open public meetings or follow along on our website.