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In These Western Cities, Using Less Water Costs More

Some homes pay five times as much as others for the same amount of water.
This story was originally published by High Country News.

Where you live has a lot to do with the price of the water that comes out of your kitchen faucet — but odds are, it’s getting more expensive. A recent survey of household water use shows an upward trend in price and surprising patterns Westerners.

In its nation-wide survey of 30 cities, the nonprofit journalism network Circle of Blue found Santa Fe’s residential water the most expensive in 2017. There, approximately 12,000 gallons — at the top of the range the USGS estimates four people might use in a month — costs $154. The same volume costs just $31 in Salt Lake City, where water was cheapest in the 12 Western cities surveyed.

Most residential water bills also include sewer and storm water charges, which weren’t analyzed in the survey. And a typical bill might be smaller if households have fewer than four residents or if they don’t consume very much water. Still, comparing the price of a fixed volume of water, rather than the size of a typical bill, can reveal broad trends. Among them: Prices have risen in every Western city surveyed since 2010, even as conservation and efficiency have driven per capita water use down.

Santa Fe’s high costs are due to pricing structure. While many cities have tiered water rates, Santa Fe’s are particularly aggressive. Above a certain threshold, households pay more than three times as much for each subsequent gallon they use, topping out at $21.72 per thousand gallons. That curbs excessive use and encourages conservation, says Christine Chavez, Santa Fe water conservation manager.

Salt Lake City also has tiered water prices during the summer, to promote efficiency when outdoor water use is highest. But the most expensive rate — the highest tier — comes to just $3.38 per thousand gallons, slightly more than twice as much as the starting tier.

The city’s bargain prices are in part due to a gravity-fed system and the close proximity of high quality source water, which keeps treatment and transport costs down, says Laura Briefer, the director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities. “It only takes about 24 hours for water at the top of the Wasatch Mountains to get to somebody’s faucet in Salt Lake City,” she says.

Typical household water use also varies across the West, and can be much less than 12,000 gallons per month. Average monthly bills reflect both how much water costs, and how much residents use. 

While costs are up overall, some cities have seen dramatic spikes: In San Francisco, for instance, rates more than doubled over the past seven years.

The hikes reflect the ongoing expense of replacing and repairing aging pipes, or building new infrastructure. Salt Lake City Public Utilities, for example, is proposing rate increases over the next several years in part to fund water treatment plant upgrades, Briefer says. Paradoxically, some higher prices reflect the cost of conserving water. When customers use less water, utilities make less money. They can fill that deficit by boosting rates, a strategy some water agencies are employing in California.

The bottom line: We may think of it as a fundamental right, but water operates as a commodity — one that isn’t getting any cheaper.

Emily Benson

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