August 4, 2008

Area Water Hogs Must Pay Through the Snout

It's admirable to not want to force the virtuous many to pay for the sins of the few. But when it comes to water use in the metro area, everyone will wind up paying when the aquifer runs dry -- whether they worked overtime to drain it nor not.

That's why a system that in theory -- and for the most part in practice -- works for the majority simply doesn't work at all with some folks who grossly overuse. Most customers of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority use somewhere between 100,000 and 140,000 gallons a year. People who work hard at conservation can come in well below that.

Most customers respond to the rate structure's "price signals" that have higher sewer fees or water surcharges that kick in if they outstrip their average use.

But in 2007, the authority's top six users guzzled down around a million gallons each. And their penalties were a drop in the bucket.

The authority only assesses water surcharges to customers who exceed their winter average (December through March) by three times in the summer months. Bernalillo County Commissioner Tim Cummins, who sits on the water authority board, paid no surcharge because his winter average was based on astronomical numbers like the 195,000 gallons in January. To enter surcharge land, Cummins would have to suck down 240,000 gallons in a single summer month. And while he is on pace to use more water than last year -- he's at 786,896 gallons so far in '08 -- that's unlikely.

Even if Cummins had entered surcharge land, the cost would have been $107 spread over seven months. If his $400 monthly water bill didn't get his attention, what would an extra $15 a month do?

Instead, Cummins paid a higher sewer fee based on his excessive winter usage. But again, what would be an economic wake-up call to most folks -- an extra $533 spread out over the year -- wasn't enough to get him to check his taps. While Cummins says he's had three leaks fixed and is working hard to get to the bottom of his excessive water consumption, his usage has climbed every month since February. He hit 174,284 gallons this month.

Bernalillo County Commissioner and water board Chairwoman Deanna Archuleta says "there needs to be a severe penalty for those who consistently have high use." City Councilor and board member Michael Cadigan, who used 217,668 gallons in the 11-month period that ended in June, says the system of basing summer charges on winter use helps pinpoint excessive lawn watering for most folks -- but it's a problem when it comes to abnormal cases with high use.

Mark Sanchez, executive director of the water authority, is concerned that excessive punishment based on your consumption compared to someone else's would have "many unintended consequences." He points out that basing charges on individual usage is more equitable -- a household of six will certainly use more than a home with a single resident. That works for the majority of water users. And Sanchez would prefer to see a focus on rewarding residents who use less and incentivizing conservation.

Those are good ideas that should be explored -- but they miss the point. We're not talking about large or blended families that require a lot of showering or laundry. We're talking waste or equatorial-lush landscaping. As water conservation officer Katherine Yuhas says of users in the million-gallon neighborhood, "no matter how many toilets you have inside, you can't use them enough to get that high."

The water authority is supposed to take in only as much money as it needs to run. But it has a fund balance established for any money it takes in over and above those operating expenses, Sanchez says, and has set up a rate-stabilization fund it can tap before requesting a rate increase. Having water hogs who go over, say, 400,000 or 500,000 or even 750,000 gallons a year contribute to the cause via painful water surcharges only makes sense.

And if it gets them to turn off the tap, it may help make the aquifer last a little longer, as well.

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