When it comes to the West’s unending water woes, a key element is always missing from the discussion: price. Water is incredibly cheap. Actually, it’s basically free: household bills (which generally cost less than cable TV) reflect the cost of pipes and pumping and treatment, not the commodity itself. For all the talk of water being more valuable than oil — it’s not.
Water must of course remain affordable for people at the low end. But when things cost more, people use less. And it’s interesting to me how rates are a third rail of sorts in local politics. Water is basically taken for granted. As the chief financial officer of San Antonio’s water system once told me, “We have people come in and say: ‘I’m really struggling to pay my water bill. Just a minute, let me answer my cellphone.’”
Rates have been going up in California and around the country — by 23 percent on average between 2000 and 2010, according to one study. The gurus say it’s almost certainly not enough, as local utilities cope with rising debt burdens and the need to find new supplies in an era of climate change and population growth. Price is far from the only tool to help deal with shortages, but it’s a little-used one. The general recommendation is for tiered pricing that increases depending on use, so that heavy users pay higher per-unit charges than light ones. While common, this is far from universal.
In times of drought, rates often go up anyway. Midland, Texas, is one recent example. That’s partly because water utilities want to encourage conservation, but they also get caught in a conundrum. Revenue falls as restrictions cut into usage, yet the utility still needs to maintain its infrastructure and, if desperate, find more (expensive) water. So rates end up rising on those who’ve obeyed orders to conserve. That’s unpopular, to say the least.
By the way, since we’re talking conservation, it helps to measure water use. A fascinating fact to emerge from the Sacramento Bee’s excellent reporting is that only about half of Sacramento’s water customers have meters. In other words, the capital of the nation’s most drought-ravaged state cannot measure the water use in half the homes and businesses it serves. Without knowing how much each location consumes, the city cannot technically enforce its 20 percent mandatory cut for everyone. Instead it’s focusing on compliance with outdoor watering restrictions (which is sensible, to be sure). Nor can it get much fancier than a flat rate for water for unmetered properties (about $42 per month for modest-sized homes). By 2025 all California homes must by law have meters, which certainly aren’t cheap — a few hundred dollars per installed meter, if memory serves.
All of this matters because municipalities are the fastest-growing major users of water, with very roughly half of cities’ water use going to lawns. Agriculture is a bigger consumer overall, however. I’ll save thoughts on that for another day.