Water's true price

Columns - Water Smart

Water as we know it is not priced for conservation; it's less expensive than cable, your phone, or a tank of gas.

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June 18, 2010
Brian Vinchesi
Brian Vinchesi

I recently read two articles: “America’s 10 Thirstiest Cities” and “The Price of Water: A Comparison of Water Rates, Usage in 30 U.S. Cities.” When considered together they provide some insight into what water availability for irrigation might look like in the future, and they offer some education about water rates and water supply philosophy.

First, let’s look at the 10 thirstiest cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Antonio, Texas, Honolulu, Bakersfield, Calif.,  Phoenix, Portland, Ore., Sacramento, Calif., Las Vegas and Tucson, Ariz. The rating identified cities that were likely to suffer a water crisis in the next decade. For me, the list wasn’t all that surprising, except for Portland. It’s interesting that Las Vegas, where front lawns have been prohibited since 2003, was ninth on the list; it’s usually the poster child for a city not having enough water. I expected it to be in the top three.

The second article points out that some of these driest cities have some of the lowest water rates in the country. Also, per capita water use is dropping in nearly every one of the 30 cities surveyed and water use has fallen or remained steady in many cities even though populations have increased significantly.

Phoenix consumes the same amount of water now as it did 10 years ago despite a population that grew by 400,000.

Taking information from both articles, consider the following: A family of four that uses 400 gallons per day (100 gallons per person) pays an average of $34.29 a month in Phoenix; in Boston they pay $65.47. In Las Vegas they pay $32.93 a month, but in Atlanta $72.95, which gets 10 times as much rainfall. Water use was as low as 41 gallons per person in Boston as opposed to Fresno, Calif., which was 211 gallons per person per day. Water is not even metered in Fresno or in many other California cities. In the majority of the cities surveyed, a family of four can buy enough water for its indoor needs (washing, drinking and cooking) for less than $25 per month based on 50 gallons per person per day use. Water as we know it is not priced for conservation; it’s less expensive than cable, your phone or a tank of gas.

Most authorities only charge consumers for the cost of delivering the water. There are very few infrastructure costs in water rates; mostly there are energy costs to pump the water. In the West, most of the delivery costs are borne by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and are highly subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer, artificially reducing the true cost of water.


How Does This Affect You?
Many of the numbers we’ve talked about have dealt only with indoor water use. Outdoor water use, however, is not as predictable because it’s based on variable factors including weather patterns. A dry year will use more water outside and a wet year will use less.

For the last several years water authorities and the EPA have been pushing for water conservation outside. These initiatives have included rebates for smart controllers and high-uniformity sprinklers, cash-for-grass programs and limiting the turf footprint. In some states and communities turf and irrigation systems have been given a bad name or just simply regulated out of existence.

However, the water usage article points out a downside to all of this conservation. Water, although inexpensive, is not free. Therefore, the more we buy, the more we pay.

Also playing into this debate is the mantra of being “green” and “sustainable.” Using potable water for irrigation is neither.

Based on what these two articles say, should we go back to the old days of designing and installing inefficient irrigation systems that waste water in order to do our part in helping water purveyors with the revenue side and keep water rates from increasing? Probably not, but it does lend some credence to the argument that there’s nothing wrong with irrigation systems as long as they are designed, installed and managed to use water efficiently.

Irrigation can be a revenue generator and as such should garner at least some respect. It’s something to keep in mind.