California Today: Use Less Water, Pay Higher Bills
A dead lawn next to an artificial lawn in San Francisco at the height of the drought in 2014. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Today’s introduction comes from Vindu Goel, a technology writer.
OAKLAND — During California’s long drought, public officials urged residents to cut back on water usage and imposed temporary bill surcharges to discourage consumption.
Consumers and businesses responded by reducing water consumption an average of 22 percent statewide from June 2015 to January 2017.
Now their reward will be higher water rates.
Although California’s governor, Jerry Brown, officially declared an end to the state’s drought emergency last month, local water agencies are planning major rate increases to make up for the fact that they are selling a lot less water than they used to.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.4 million people on the east side of San Francisco Bay, told customers last week that it planned to raise water rates 9.25 percent on July 1 and another 9 percent the next year. The water agency in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, is proposing to raise rates 7 percent per year for the next two years.
Call it the paradox of conservation.
About 80 percent of the costs of delivering water to urban customers are fixed — pipes, treatment plants, reservoirs. But water bills are set up to recover most of those costs by charging customers a per-gallon fee, said David Mitchell, who studies water policy at M.Cubed, a public policy consulting firm.
So when usage drops sharply, as it did during the drought, rates have to go up. “The fixed costs have to spread over fewer gallons,” Mr. Mitchell said. He predicted that water utilities statewide will be raising rates in the next few years to make up for the revenue shortfalls caused by the drought.
For the East Bay Municipal Utility District, revenue is down 12 percent this fiscal year, as a drought surcharge ended and the average user cut back from 250 gallons a day to 200.
“We really do appreciate what our customers have done to conserve. They’ve pulled out their lawns. They take shorter showers,” said Jenesse Miller, an agency spokeswoman. “But whether we deliver one gallon or 130 million gallons, the infrastructure is the same.”
Ms. Miller said that the two rate increases, which will ultimately raise the average bill $9 a month by mid-2018, will largely pay for infrastructure improvements and maintenance. “Many parts of the East Bay have pipes that are 90 or 100 years old,” she said.