By Mary Ann Dickinson and Chelsea Hawkins
There’s something counter-intuitive about paying more for water even as you use less of it. If, for example, you used less data than your cell phone plan allowed, you wouldn’t expect your bill to go up. But the comparison of water to data for your phone service misplaces the importance of water in our every-day-lives. After all, we don’t need cell phone service to survive (biologically speaking at least). The comparison also undermines the complexity of water service: there is actually a good reason you’re paying more even as you conserve, and conservation does benefit you in the long-run.
As Americans, we are largely accustomed to having water on demand. As a result, we often take for granted all of the work, energy and materials that go into this significant convenience. So, when talking about rates, it’s important to bear in mind that most of what we pay for is the cost of service, less so the water itself.
The Alliance for Water Efficiency video Water: What You Pay For does a great job explaining this concept in a short three-minutes, but to review here quickly: Water has to be pumped from its source, treated so that it is safe to drink, and then moved through a large and long maze of mains and pipes, to us, the customers. Once we’ve used that water, it becomes wastewater which has to make the reverse trip, leaving our homes through sewage systems that require separate mains and pipes, until it lands at a treatment facility. There, it’s cleaned again to be recycled or returned to nature.
Your water rates may be increasing for a few reasons. Your community may need to acquire a new source or the cost of chemicals for water treatment may be going up. The most likely cause is that the water system needs repairs and updates—all of those mains and pipes, pumps and treatment facilities have to be maintained in order to provide reliable and safe water service. Nationwide, many water systems haven’t undergone substantial upgrades in the last half-century. The delayed investment has compounded both the need for system improvements and the cost to make them. If you think this sounds like an overblown problem, check out the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. America’s water infrastructure scored just above failing. The American Water Works Association’s report Buried No Longer estimates that the cost of improvements nationwide hovers around $1 trillion, and at least some part of that cost will be passed on to customers. For this reason alone, rates will continue to rise around the country.
So what of conservation? Recently, customers in communities all around the U.S. have expressed their frustration that their water rates are going up even as they’ve abided by requests and rules alike to use less water. “Why am I paying more for using less?” they ask. But let’s reframe the issue and ask a different question – such as “How much more would I be paying without conservation?”
The positive impact of conservation on rates is not obvious, but the impact is there and it is significant. Using less water helps utilities keep costs as low as possible over time. If less water is used, fewer treatment chemicals are needed and less energy is required to move water and wastewater through their respective systems. Using less also helps utilities avoid having to acquire new sources of water, typically a major expense. All of these savings are passed on to customers in the form of lower rates. That means that even as your rates rise to cover the expenses of maintaining your community’s system, they are still the lowest rates you could possibly pay, all thanks to conservation.
This is more than just theory—in June the Alliance for Water Efficiency released two new reports demonstrating how two Arizona communities’ rates would have been impacted in the absence of conservation.
In Tucson, Arizona, conservation helped customers’ water use decline by 31% over the last 30 years even as the population grew from 292,000 to 425,000 during the same three-decade period. Without this decrease in use, an additional investment of $350,862,732 would be needed to meet demand. Because conservation enabled Tucson to avoid those costs, water and wastewater rates are 11.7% lower than they would have been.
In Gilbert, Arizona, customers’ per-person per-day water use fell 29% over the last 20 years even as the population exploded from 75,144 to 247,542 in the same amount of time. Without this decrease in use, Gilbert would have needed to invest an additional $340,807,075 in order to meet demand. Because conservation was actively in place, those costs were avoided and water and wastewater rates are 5.8% lower than they would have been.
AWE also published a 2013 report that found that the City of Westminster, Colorado, benefited from conservation. Over a 30-year period, the City experienced a 17% reduction in per-person per-day use because of conservation even as the population grew from 52,570 to 106,114. Had use not been curbed, the City’s water and wastewater rates would be 91% higher in order to cover capital investments costing $591,850,000.
So don’t lose faith in conservation if your rates are going up—using water wisely is as important now as it has ever been. If your bill is starting to look a little higher, have confidence that conservation is working to keep your rates as low as possible while your utility makes the investments it needs in order to provide you with safe and reliable water service.
Mary Ann Dickinson is President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the efficient and sustainable use of water in the United States and Canada. Based in Chicago, the Alliance works with nearly 400 water utilities, water conservation professionals in business and industry, planners, regulators, and consumers. In 2014, the Alliance won the U.S. Water Prize in the non-profit category for its work. Mary Ann has over 40 years of experience, having worked at the California Urban Water Conservation Council, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
Chelsea Hawkins is a Program Planner with the Alliance for Water Efficiency. She manages and works on a variety projects such as the 2017 Water Efficiency and Conservation State Scorecard and the Commercial Kitchens Best Practices Guide. She also provides technical and research services to AWE members on a range of conservation and efficiency-related topics. Chelsea earned her MSc. in Water Management and Hydrological Sciences from Texas A&M University. She earned her J.D. from St. Thomas University School of Law and is licensed to practice in the State of Texas.