Water rates aimed at keeping precious commodity
by Gordon D. Fielder, Jr.
Editor’s Note: This piece explains a sensible approach to water pricing that should be the practice of all water utilities: to charge more for increased water use rather than giving a discount to those who over-consume. The article explains the rationale and the practice well. — Hardly Waite.
SALINA, Kan. (AP) — Salina’s water rates designed to help decrease consumption of a precious commodity
City water customers who are unsure if Salina is serious about conservation need only to become profligate with the garden hose this summer to clear up any doubts.
Salina abandoned its declining rate structure, which rewarded high use with lower cost, in favor of charging more for excess consumption.
“It used to be, the more you used the less it cost you,” said Martha Tasker, director of utilities. “In 2008 we changed that. Now we have a water conservation rate. Many would give it a much fouler name.”
The level of usage above which the conservation rate kicks in depends on a household’s base consumption.
Here’s how it works:
The city records a household’s winter quarter consumption rate — the amount of water used in January through March. That amount might be anywhere from 5,000 gallons a month to 10,000 gallons, depending on the size of household and personal water use.
The customer then is allowed to use 120 percent more than that each month before breaching the conservation threshold. This applies only to users who consume at least 6,000 gallons a month. The city spots all customers 6,000 gallons, so those who may use, say, 1,000 gallons, won’t reach the excess fee limit until they go over 6,000 gallons, not 1,200 gallons.
However, a household that averages 10,000 gallons a month during the three-month winter quarter would be able to use 12,000 gallons a month without paying the higher rate.
“Any water you use over that you pay an excess use rate for,” Tasker said.
For that first 12,000 gallons, the city charges $4.20 per 1,000 gallons. That comes to $50.40 a month, plus meter fees and taxes. Each 1,000 gallons over that, however, soaks the user for $8.40. So if the user instead consumes 13,000 gallons, that extra 1,000 gallons adds $8.40 to the bill, or $58.80.
The change attempts to encourage customers to be water misers.
“It doesn’t make sense if the more you use the less it costs. You’re not going to be very careful with how much you use,” she said.
The city draws its water from groundwater and from the Smoky Hill River. Tasker said river water costs less to treat, once it silts out, because it’s naturally soft. The water from the 15 wells is hard and must undergo treatment by chemicals, the cost of which keeps rising.
In winter, the city goes through about 5 million gallons a day, a rate that easily doubles in summer.
The conservation rate is intended to reduce the reliance on the more costly well water.
Water customers in Hutchinson and Manhattan pay less than Salina, in part because they still have a declining rate structure.
A 12,000-gallon monthly use in Hutchinson would cost $35.20 and in Manhattan, $37.29.
But an extra 1,000 gallons a month would bring the bill to $38.05 in Hutchinson and $46.17 in Manhattan.
Tasker said most Salinans shouldn’t expect conservation charges.
“Eighty to 85 percent never see excess use rates,” Tasker said.
In fact, many hover around the 6,000-gallon-a-month level.
“That’s 200 gallons a day,” she said.
To help customers with their water savings, the city has installed wireless metering that can track water usage by the hour. Before, water department employees had to eyeball each meter all over town.
“Nobody reads meters anymore,” Tasker said.
Small antennas in the meters bounce flow rates off a couple of water towers to city hall.
Leak detection software, once it’s fully up and running, can alert Tasker’s staff to unusual water use and who then can contact the homeowner.
For instance, the software might show water flowing 24 hours a day.
“That’s not normal,” Tasker said.
This will be especially useful for snowbirds who fly south for the winter.
“You could be gone and the water’s running into your basement and nobody would know (for a month),” she said.
“It’s about being accurate so people are paying for the actual water they are using,” she said.