By Lauren Kuehne
I recently met a new acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) that works in an agency (also nameless) that supplies water to a medium-sized metropolitan area (let’s call it “Somewhere, WA”). Over coffee, where I traded my stories in freshwater research for theirs from the convoluted hallways of freshwater management, I was surprised to learn that per capita use of water has dramatically declined in many urban areas over the last 20 years, largely a result of conservation programs telling us “No, brown lawns are in this year!”
This seemed encouraging, which is why the next remark surprised me – that city councils and other water management politicos are quietly dropping and cutting back water conservation programs. Not because it’s a tight economy but because, despite population growth, conservation has caused water revenues to fall short of projections. Far, far short – leaving water managers in the uncomfortable position of needing, if anything, to encourage people to use more water in order to cover their infrastructure costs.
If, like me, you next think “Well, just raise rates” – apparently to a city councilmember the only sane time to do this is when you want to be (forcibly) retired. It took me a little while to get out of my ecologist’s viewpoint, where leaving water in lakes or rivers is only ever a good thing – because fish and fowl need it, or simply because leaving water unused in the environment is always preferable to the use, treatment, and discharge process. But I got really curious about this catch-22 of water agencies in the dubious role of depending on revenue from a certain level of consumption.
A few minutes spent on Google and I had a choice of recent examples from across the country, such as the following from perpetually drought-threatened Texas. In April, mayors in Dallas, Forth Worth, and Arlington pledged to support stricter lawn-watering restrictions that would save “billions of gallons without harming landscapes”, but by May hemming, hawing, and foot-dragging were the primary actions as reported in the Dallas Morning News:
“Despite the mayors’ continued support for a regional water strategy, political pushback and concerns about lost revenue have indefinitely hobbled passage of restrictions. With area reservoirs full from unexpectedly heavy rains over the winter and spring, enthusiasm for stricter water policies seems to have dried up.”
A (very) few more minutes and I had gone from a handful to dozens of references to the conservation+revenue dilemma – in documents like county council meeting minutes, water district rate bulletins, and local news articles. Some mince and euphemize around the dilemma, but most (like this one from Mesa, Arizona and another from San Diego) are refreshingly straightforward about it.
By far the best find was an article in 2010 from Circle of Blue, a world resource research and reporting collaborative – the title, “U.S. Urban Residents Cut Water Usage; Utilities are Forced to Raise Prices”, kind of says it all. The exhaustive article is fantastic, and stuffed full of excellent and pithy quotes which outline the vicious circle of water conservation, water revenues, and water rates.
There are solutions which can end the cycle, and water managers and researchers are putting in a lot of effort to figure out rate structures that offer incentives rather than penalize users for conservation, and also address the issue of water access for low-income users. But be warned, it will demand some cooperation from consumers – in other words ,you and me. Look for the plot to thicken in my next blog post “If A Fish Could Write Your Monthly Water Bill”…stay tuned.
** Check out Lauren’s other work at her research blog: http://laurenkuehne.wordpress.com/