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Candidates for District 19 share keen interest in water conservation

Marty Liebowitz and Bob Powell — contenders for an open seat on the commission that governs King County Water District 19 — seem to have more in common than not.

Both say they would try to ramp up conservation efforts by the Island’s largest water utility, noting that conservation — as opposed to expensive efforts at trying to obtain more water — is the best way to address the district’s perennial water shortage.

Both are concerned about the health of the district’s current infrastructure. And both say the community would be well-served by the election of either of them.

Indeed, if civility were the measure, one would be hard pressed to make a distinction.

But the two men bring vastly different experiences to the table, and in interviews and a recent candidates’ forum, they sounded a different note on a few issues — such as exactly how they’d explore conservation measures or the way they’d approach a graduated rate structure that makes those who use more water pay more per cubic foot.

Powell, 49, who’s lived on the Island 10 years, is an engineer who helped develop some of the technology that currently adorns Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ home. Today, he runs the water jet shop for Vashon College — operating the Omax water jet to shape steel parts for artists or machine fabricators. He also recently started his own small company, Meadow Creature LLC, producing a welded, steel broadfork for low-impact garden tilling.

A tall, bearded man with a gentle demeanor, he speaks slowly and thoughtfully when asked a question.

“I’m running because there’s a job that needs to be done to steward our water resources for the longtime well-being of our community,” he said during a recent interview. “My top priority is properly stewarding our resource and maintaining a safe, reliable, affordable source of water for the district customers.”

Liebowitz, 63, an architect and general contractor who’s lived on Vashon three years, runs with his wife Maggie the Madrona Company, designing, building and managing residential and mixed-use buildings. The father of three grown children, he shares his time between Vashon and Seattle, noting, “I love both places.”

Short and affable, he seems the opposite of Powell in personality and style but also presents himself as thoughtful and well-spoken.

Asked his top concerns, he noted that people are pushing for more water shares when other more pressing issues hang over the small utility. “The real top concern is that the treatment plant needs to work; the storage tank needs to work. They need a lot of preventative maintenance,” he said. “That’s really where the money should be going, rather than drilling more wells.”

Powell shares Liebowitz’s concern about the expense of drilling to try to meet District 19’s long-standing moratorium on new water shares — or water service units, as the utility calls them. And both men — at a candidates’ forum last week and in subsequent interviews — stressed the need for more aggressive conservation efforts.

Powell, when he discusses the issue, stresses that he’d use only free-market incentives. But the current approach — offering up rebates for water-efficient appliances — simply doesn’t go far enough, he said. The only way to truly get at the issue of water use is by addressing irrigation and landscaping, an area that sucks up a lot of water in the summer months, when the water district’s usage has come close to topping its state-ordered peak.

But the issue is complex, he noted. There’s no simple device, like a low-flow toilet, to limit water use in landscaping. Still, he said, the commissioners could direct the staff to explore these areas, with an eye towards trying to get more people off the 100-person long waiting list for water shares.

“A fundamental concept is that it’s cheaper to obtain water for new customers by conserving than by developing new sources,” Powell said. “I’d like the district to follow what some energy utilities have done and treat conservation like a source and attach a monetary value to it. ... It may be that people on the waiting list ... who want water may be willing to pay enough for it to create it — by their connection charge going directly to upgrades for existing customers’ irrigation systems.”

Liebowitz also talked comfortably and at length about conservation, noting the need to push much harder to have an impact. He knows someone, for instance, who manufactures 1,100-gallon water tanks — giant barrels that could capture rain water and make a real dent in District 19 water consumption. He said he’d like to see the district set a residential goal of 200,000 gallons in new rainwater collection tanks on the Island in the next five years.

He also talked about changing the rate structure — making, for instance, the basic cost of a hook-up less and the consumption of water more. The $39 flat fee that users pay each month is a disincentive for conservation, he said.

“When I moved here, I looked at my bill and said, ‘Let’s see if we can reduce our consumption,” Liebowitz said, noting that he and his family have avidly tried to conserve for years. “We cut way back. And every month we’d get a bill that was high ... because of that flat $39 fee.”

While they agree on much, the two emphasize different issues.

Liebowitz, for instance, expressed considerable concern about the state of District 19’s infrastructure: “The main thing is to maintain and make better that which we have, to get pumps and the most efficient systems. I’m worried that these old tanks could start having problems.”

Powell, for his part, said he thinks a lot about issues related to the district’s water policies, such as growth within the town core. He liked to see the town “a little denser,” he said, because it would put less pressure on Vashon’s forests and open space while providing some more affordable housing.

“This is more of a decision for our community to make by consensus. ... I’d like to work with the district and the community to solve that part of the problem as it exists within the water district policies,” he said.

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