Slogging Through My Water Bill

I’ve got water rates on my mind.  I recently heard Sheila Olmstead, Fellow at Resources for the Future, speak on water pricing and she reminded me of Circle of Blue’s recent update of their survey on US water rates.  And recently I was in Denver, having conversations about long-term water planning – something that is very much on Governor Hickenlooper’s mind.

So I got to thinking about my own water use, and dug out my most recent water bill from the City of Wauwatosa, WI where I live.  I know that the city gives a nod to water conservation, but it isn’t high on the list of priorities for our municipal leaders, nor for the Milwaukee Water Works that supplies Wauwatosa’s water, and it is evident in the way we get billed for water.  For starters, we are billed only once every three months: in May I received the bill for my water use from mid-December to mid-March.  Definitely not designed to give the kind of feedback that gets customers to modify their behavior.

Even more obfuscating is the bill itself.  Our family’s bill indicates that we’ve used “8 ccf” during that three-month time period last winter, now a distant memory.  What kind of unit is a ccf you might ask? Entering ‘ccf’ into comes up with some interesting options, but if you picked “hundred cubic feet’ (rather than Cheetah Conservation Fund or Co-operative Commonwealth Fund) you guessed right.  A further search for a conversion factor tells me that one cubic foot is 7.48 U.S. liquid gallons (which is different than UK gallons, or US dry gallons).  So, 100 cubic feet is 748 gallons, and our family’s 8 ccf is equivalent to 5,984 gallons, or roughly 6,000 gallons. I don’t know why the bill couldn’t have just said this.

Taking this to the next step, our household, which generally consisted of 3 people this year, used 2,000 gallons per person per quarter, or about 22 gallons per person per day.

The bill’s total was a whopping $101.26 for the quarter, only $34.59 of which was for the water. That’s less than $4 per person per month, which is probably less than what it would cost to buy one bottle of water per person each week.  Talk about a bargain! The remainder of the bill covered sewage ($42.07), stormwater ($13.86) and fire protection ($10.74).

On the Wauwatosa municipal website I can see how my bill is calculated: There is a fixed fee ($17.79) based on the size of the pipe entering my home, and then an additional $2.10 per ccf, which works out to be $.0028 per gallon.  So every time I water my vegetable garden with a watering can filled from my rain barrel, I save myself about one cent.  Wow.

I was especially surprised to see that Wauwatosa has what is known in the industry as a ‘declining block rate’.  Simply put, it means that the more someone uses, the cheaper the water gets.  Think bulk discount.  Definitely not a way to get people to conserve.  This is in sharp contrast to the innovative ways that utilities that are interested in conservation provide information to their customers. To look for an example, I went to Denver Water’s website.  They bill monthly, have oodles of conservation information on their website, and even provide a graphing tool that will allow their customers to see their specific water usage over time.

I guess I should be comforted that I live in a water-rich region, where rather than getting customers to conserve, the challenge is how to mazimixe water utility revenue to cover the expenses of a large, underutilzed infrastructre.  But as Mary Ann Dickinson, Executive Director of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, once said to me “Wasting water should not make economic sense. Water is a commodity that has a lot of embedded energy and treatment cost in it. If conserving water makes rates rise, it is more of a failure to plan that a failure of economics.”

And that, my friends, is certainly the subject of another blog.

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