GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

Behavior modification through water pricing?

Posted by George J Janczyn on August 21, 2009

The new water rules have people complaining and reporters scribbling, but most people are quietly adjusting. So why do I expect there will be lots more adjusting to do down the road?

These days most water districts in San Diego county are enforcing a 3x/week for 10 minutes restriction (1x/week during winter months). Here’s a chart from SDCWA:


With the new rules and conservation publicity, overall consumption has already dropped by an agreeable amount. Over the longer term, though, we’re facing continuous population growth and a permanent shortage of water. It would be bad enough if our existing water supplies remained stable, but global warming threatens to reduce the supply as well. As James Powell observes in his important book Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West, “The supply of its [Colorado River] water is going to fall; our best bet is to focus on demand.” [emphasis mine]

I think water pricing is where the real action is going to be. Where it already is. In San Diego our prices just rose again, following several increases over the past year. In my case, with a single-family residence, the price per-HCF (hundred cubic feet) in August 2008 was $2.4578 (for the first 14 HCF); today in August 2009 it’s $2.9185. And don’t get me started on the sewer fee which is the same whether your water goes down the drain or not–a whopping $130.63 per bi-monthly billing period in my case.

Our neighbors in the Helix Water District will be getting a 24% rate increase starting September 1.

Increases are needed to offset infrastructure and delivery costs, yes, but higher prices can be imposed to control demand as well (David Zetland at Aguanomics is a strong advocate for that approach). That’s where I think we’re headed. If we do price ourselves into appropriate water behavior, though, I hope it’s done equitably. Up north, the Irvine Ranch Water District has a well-considered approach that meets my fairness test. Their rate structure defines a typical household’s size and water needs, then has tiered pricing in low-volume / base rate / inefficient / excessive / wasteful categories. If one’s household is greater in size than the assumed model, one can apply for a variance to accomodate the extra need and avoid being penalized. I would like San Diego to follow suit with such a plan, but I predict our water department would resist having to do more needs analysis and processing of the inevitable variance requests, a great deal of work to be sure.

Where are we headed? Your thoughts are welcome.

2 Responses to “Behavior modification through water pricing?”

  1. A thoughtful post. Consider what “equitable” means — IRWD gives an allowance for more people OR a bigger lot. Is it “fair” to give the same amount of cheap water to the guy with the golf course as to the family of 6? I think not. That’s why I say that “some for free, pay for more” is per capita (for the free bit), but not per acre. In other words, people before lawns…

    Read more here:

    SD may move towards Irvine Ranch (b/c it’s cool, and engineers LOVE complex models) but they will have to choose between people and lawns at some point. I hope they go for lawns. (Oh, but note that IRWD is WAY better than allocation based on historic use!)

  2. ps/ I critiqued IRWD here:

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