November 21, 2007

Officials Study Tiered Water Pricing

By Blake Aued, Athens Banner-Herald, Ga.

Nov. 20--One day the drought will be over and lawns in Athens will turn lush and green again.

But it will cost more to keep them that way.

Once Athens-Clarke commissioners put an emergency drought plan into place next month, they will turn their attention to encouraging residents to save water even when rain is plentiful.

A county water conservation committee will begin meeting again in January after a year layoff, and first on its agenda will be a tiered pricing system aimed at charging big users more to encourage them to cut back.

The committee also will propose a permanent cap on the amount of water residents can use, said its chairwoman, Athens-Clarke Commissioner Kathy Hoard.

"I think the days of having an endless supply of water based on what I can afford or other people can afford are no longer here," Hoard said.

No specifics are available yet, but the pricing system will continue to charge residents cheap rates for enough water to use for bathing, cooking, drinking, laundry and other essential purposes, Hoard said.

Residents who want more water for big yards and gardens will pay steeper prices.

The cap would prohibit wealthy people from ignoring the higher prices and continuing to use however much water they want, she said.

Businesses also would be subject to a conservation rate structure, Hoard said.

Commissioners considered conservation pricing in 2002 and 2004, but never acted. Many residents said they did not want to pay the higher rates and predicted homeowners would let lawns, trees and gardens die as a result of the policy. Environmentalists, on the other hand, said most people would ignore the proposed modest rate hikes.

"The sentiment at the time was overwhelmingly against it," Commissioner Elton Dodson said.

Now, though, a 100-year drought has opened residents' eyes to the need to conserve water, and the commission should pass a new pricing structure while the memory still is fresh, Dodson said.

"I think there's a strong consensus on the commission that that's something we need to move on," he said.

Commissioners also have discussed using extra money from the higher rates to buy low-flow faucets, toilets and shower heads for low-income residents. Earmarking the money for conservation would eliminate one criticism of conservation pricing -- that it's just another way for government to make money, Hoard said.

"We could put that money to good use helping people retrofit and repair leaks who otherwise might not have the financial ability to do so," she said.

Hoard's water conservation committee will begin meeting twice a month in January, Hoard said. It did not meet for about a year because Hoard was recovering from surgery in the spring, and water officials have been busy in the summer and fall dealing with emergency measures to conserve water during the drought, she said.

The commission is expected to pass a plan next month to require industries, schools, government, businesses and residents to cut their water use even further if the drought continues -- known as "Step F" of the drought management plan.

Some commissioners, including Carl Jordan and David Lynn, have advocated that the water utility implement a tiered pricing structure either at the same time as or instead of the restrictions in Step F, but other commissioners and Mayor Heidi Davison emphasize that Step F is an emergency plan, not a long-term conservation effort.

Conservation pricing already is in place in most metro Atlanta cities and counties, according to the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

WATER TABLE: The Athens-Clarke Public Utilities Department measures water by cubic feet, but most people are more familiar with gallons.

Converting to gallons takes a simple formula:

Cubic feet X 7.5 = Gallons


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