GrokSurf's San Diego

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

Will water conservation make water more expensive?

Posted by George J Janczyn on September 16, 2009

In Sunday’s Union-Tribune, Mike Lee wrote that “water districts might have to keep boosting prices” because consumers reduced their water consumption due to the shortage. The article generated plenty of interest (169 comments, many angry, when I last checked, plus this blog post from Lost in the Landscape).

As far as the San Diego Water Department is concerned, I have assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that the fixed ‘water base fee’ is for their operating expenses while the variable ‘water used’ fee is for the cost of the water itself. I haven’t been able to get the water department to respond to my question about that. If I’m correct, then it makes no sense for them to be in trouble when we reduce consumption. They get the same base fee regardless of consumption. If my assumption is not correct, does that mean they pay less for water than they charge us and use the profit to help pay other expenses? If that’s the case then something is wrong. Water departments should not be in a position where they need to increase our consumption in order to remain viable. In any case, there is already a rate increase in the works for January 2010 which is unrelated to the issue of decreased consumption.

One thing we can’t escape though. We live in this arid southwestern part of the country only because an elaborate and fragile plumbing system has been constructed to bring water from elsewhere by immense centralized institutions with complicated hierarchies causing great destruction in the environment. To quote Donald Worster (Rivers of Empire): “For some time to come, the region will likely be ruled over by concentrated power and hierarchy based on the command of scarce water.” He wrote that in 1985. That observation is true enough. Whether our current path is sustainable (and whether so many of us can still live here in 20 years) remains to be seen.

Update Sept 18, 2009: The San Diego Water Dept. confirmed my assumption that the fixed ‘base’ fee goes for operations and the variable ‘water used’ fee covers the cost of the water to the department. They don’t recoup operations expenses from the ‘water used’ fee. They also confirmed my point that the upcoming January rate increase has nothing to do with our reduced consumption, although the increase will be primarily, if not entirely, in the ‘water used’ fee because they buy the water from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) and the California Water Authority (CWA) which have raised their prices.

However, the MWD and CWA may well draw operating expenses from their water revenue, as may many other water agencies. Ultimately, the higher one looks, the more tangled become all the factors that lead to the price of water. Managing the demand for water is a big part of the equation, though, and who holds the power to do that is just what Donald Worster was talking about.

One Response to “Will water conservation make water more expensive?”

  1. Thanks for the link, George. The San Diego model of water districts is probably more fragile than LA’s, which combines water and power, where stability in one area can help offset changes in another.

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