Water Conservation Linked to Lower Rates

A study of two Arizona cities shows that there is a significant financial incentive for utility customers to minimize water use
Water Conservation Linked to Lower Rates
This graphic on the city of Tucson's website breaks down for customers how conservation measures over the years have kept water and sewer rates in check.

There can be a disconnect between utilities and customers when water conservation is pushed for, yet rates continue to rise. A new study provides some data that utilities can use to help customers see the bigger picture.

The study, conducted by the Alliance for Water Efficiency, looked at two Arizona cities, Tucson and Gilbert, and compared current water and sewer rates to what they would be had the cities not enforced conservation measures years ago. The study found that Tucson’s rates are at least 11.7 percent lower than if water use had not been curtailed starting in the mid-1980s. Gilbert’s rates are 5.8 percent lower today than they would be without conservation practices.

“It’s an important story to convey to decision makers, who have the difficult job of justifying rate increases,” Peter Mayer, the report’s primary author, told Circle of Blue.

The first city that Mayer did a conservation analysis for was Westminster, Colorado, where the cost savings projections were even more significant. The 2013 study concluded that rates would have been 91 percent higher had water demand continued at the level it was at in 1980. Conservation cut down on the city’s need to acquire new water supplies, which are especially costly in Colorado’s high-growth Front Range, a key reason why the savings projections were so high.

“There’s a different story for each city,” Mayer said to Circle of Blue.

Mayer begins his analysis by selecting a baseline year, typically a point where water use or population began to change significantly. For Gilbert, he chose 1997, which was just before a growth spurt. For Tucson, 1989 was the baseline because it was the year average residential water use peaked. Based on the trends that existed in that baseline year, Mayer determines the current demands that would exist if conservation practices hadn’t occurred. From there, he calculates the additional infrastructure, water supplies, and funds that would be needed.

Tucson and Gilbert use a variety of methods to lower water consumption. Tucson requires commercial properties to install native desert landscaping. It also provides customers rebates for water-efficient devices and has a rate structure that increases the cost significantly as water use rises. Single-family homes, which make up about 70 percent of the total water use, have cut their consumption by 42 percent since 1989.

Gilbert doesn’t offer rebates, but customers can request a checkup that identifies ways to decrease outdoor watering, typically the largest opportunity for savings. Haley Paul, the city’s conservation specialist, told Circle of Blue that a household that completes the checkup reduces water consumption by 50,000 gallons the following year on average. Paul says the city hasn’t had to raise rates since 2009, but noted that the study is something officials can point to when that does become necessary.

“It helps us in messaging, first of all,” she told Circle of Blue. “And it’s another reason for people to conserve.”

Source: Circle of Blue



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