We’re Getting Good at This, and It’s Costing Us

Between regional droughts, technological advancements, and improved awareness, we’ve made real progress with water consumption. Congratulations on your water-wise landscaping and low-flow fixtures, and thanks for remembering to turn off the tap ASAP! We’ve done a good job reducing our water usage — and we’re paying for it.

 Even a beautiful succulent garden can’t solve our water problems.

Even a beautiful succulent garden can’t solve our water problems.

Our conservation efforts have lowered our household water consumption, so water districts have had to raise rates to compensate for the lost revenue. These increases were first to maintain service, but additional increases have been needed to tackle much-needed infrastructure projects. From 2010 to 2017, the average cost of water increased by more than 50 percent.* That’s a steeper year-over-year increase than any other consumer necessity, and it doesn’t include sewer and stormwater fees. So, before a household has turned on the tap, the fees for simply hooking up to municipal utilities can be prohibitive, no matter how much water people use.

Not that the volume of water always matters, because there’s a huge disparity in rates. A family of four using 100 gallons of water per person per day (the national average) pays about $150 per month in Santa Fe; the same family pays about $25 per month in Fresno, CA. In water districts throughout the country, customers are unmetered, paying a flat rate for an endless amount of water.

Whether the flat-rate policy is due to lack of funds for upgrading to meters or is a district’s preferred method of water management, flat-rate billing has its benefits, but has two serious consequences. First, it discourages conservation. If water users pay the same amount regardless of volume, there’s no reason not to leave the hose running all summer. Second, consumers have no real data about their usage. When faced with a drought or water crisis, unmetered households have no idea how many gallons they use, and therefore can’t set lower consumption goals. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, so “just use less” isn’t a workable solution.

At the same time that local water districts have grappled with lower revenue from households, the federal contribution for infrastructure has markedly decreased. In the 1970s, the federal government paid for about 60 percent of water infrastructure spending in the 1970s; it now pays for just nine percent. Municipal utilities have had to make up that gap. They’ve done this in two ways: by deferring improvements and raising rates. Remember Fresno, where the average bill is $25? They’re planning to double the cost of water to pay for water supply and treatment needs. Water districts around the country are doing the same. Clearly, we can no longer defer improvements, but we’re also are reaching the end of tenable rate increases.

These rate hikes can be devastating. Chicago saw a 25 percent increase in just one year (2012), and has enacted a 90 percent increase since 2010 to speed up the replacement of old, failing water mains. Since 2014, more than 50,000 people in Detroit have had their water shut off. Not having water in your home is life changing, and these shutoffs impact the long-term health, education, and financial well-being of households, neighborhoods and communities. Rate increases can also be counterproductive for water districts. These shutoffs impact their balance sheets: Fewer paying customers means less revenue for the district, which fills the gap by raising rates on existing customers until they can’t pay, then more households’ water is shut off.

Some cities are getting creative. Many have implemented a tiered pricing structure so that the heaviest water users pay the most for water. To ensure that everyone has access to clean, affordable water, cities such as Philadelphia offer reduced fees to low-income households, making up the lost revenue with higher fees for high-volume users. Others are looking to spread the financial burden of infrastructure improvements to people beyond their city by implementing a dedicated sales tax, generating income from the thousands (and sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands) of people commuting from suburbs to the city for work.

Whatever the strategy, it’s clear that we need to take action. There’s no single solution to the growing water crisis, but the sooner we understand that it’s going to cost more to use and process our water, the sooner we can make progress, and ensure that clean, affordable water is available to everyone, for generations to come.

*The source for the statistics here is Circle of Blue, a nonprofit organization that provides data and analysis focused on humanity’s relationship with water.