Whether you use one drop of water or a thousand gallons, utilities have fixed costs to deliver it.
Whether you use one drop of water or a thousand gallons, utilities have fixed costs to deliver it. - 
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Tap water is still one of the cheapest things you can buy these days.

Of course, out West many households have to conserve water because of a drought. In other parts of the country, folks are using less water not only because they want to conserve, but also because appliances are way more efficient than they used to be. Still, many of those folks are finding that no matter how much water they save, their water rates still go up. They’re using less water, but paying more per gallon.

Why? Put simply, when water consumption drops, so do the main revenue streams for water and sewer agencies. But whether you use one drop of water or a thousand gallons, utilities still bear the cost of cleaning it and sending it to you. Those costs are mounting.

To get a quick sense of the success of passive household conservation, just walk into a store that sells toilets.

“We’re looking at a couple of models here,” says Sean Jones as we walk down through the Home Depot in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “American Standard, Glacier and we have Kohler.”

Twenty toilets in a gleaming row, and when all of them flush, they flush low-flow. Decades ago, toilets used five to seven gallons of water per flush. Now, every toilet here uses far less, to meet EPA criteria.

Jones says now it's “1.28 gallons of water flushes per flush."

It’s not just toilets, though the EPA says toilets are the main source of residential water use. Decades of federal standards have created a new normal: water efficient dishwashers, shower heads and washing machines that save thousands of gallons a year.

Water and wastewater utilities also urged conservation, including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, or WSSC, in Maryland.

“We’ve had a 30-plus year message of conserve, conserve, conserve,” says West Laurel resident and WSSC customer Melissa Daston.

So, that’s just what she did.

“I’ve replaced all of my toilets to low-flow toilets,” says Daston, the past-president of her local civic assocation. “I save up all my dishes until I have a full load. I have stopped watering my lawn years years and years ago.”

The list goes on. If Daston’s water use has fallen, however, her water rates have not. She doesn’t find her bill unreasonable – and she’s not complaining – but, she’s noticed.

“They’ve gone up,” she says. “Point blank, they’ve gone up year, after year, after year, after year.”

In fact, WSSC’s acting CFO Chris Cullinan says rates have gone up about 95 percent (on a compounded basis) over the last ten years. That’s far higher than the rate of inflation.

The reason? WSSC is producing less water than it did twenty years ago, even though it’s added more than 70,000 customer accounts. Again, because of fixed costs, the less water people use, the more these public utilities have to charge for it.

“We make money when we sell water,” Cullinan says. “That’s our primary revenue source. And so while from an environmental standpoint conservation is certainly one of our objectives, from a business standpoint it certainly presents some challenges.”

The biggest challenge is aging infrastructure. WSSC has about 5,600 miles of water pipes and almost as many sewer pipes. 

“It’s from New York to LA and back, within a service area encompassing two counties,” Cullinan says.

He says decades of improper infrastructure investment mean it’s now time to catch up and do reactive maintenance. The utility is under court order to fix sewer overflows, which Cullinan says will cost about $1.4 billion.

The head of the American Water Works Association says rate increases like the ones in Maryland are happening across the nation, as decreased water use collides with the financial burden posed by buried infrastructure.

“Those pipes were put into ground anywhere from 70 to 100 years ago,” says AWWA’s CEO David LaFrance. “There’s massive needs for replacements. We estimate that over the next 25 years it’s a trillion dollar problem.”

The solution won’t all come in the form of rate hikes.

Like other utilities, WSSC wants to stabilize rate increases by charging higher fees. It has proposed a revamped account maintenance fee, which would include an infrastructure investment charge. It’s also proposed a changed customer affordability program, which requires state approval.

The utility sees recalibrated fees as a more stable, equitable way for all users to fund the infrastructure that brings them water and takes away waste.

Small users like Melissa Daston worry increased fees hurt the biggest conservers the most.