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In dry California, using price to police water use

Sarah Gardner Oct 16, 2014
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In dry California, using price to police water use

Sarah Gardner Oct 16, 2014
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California’s historic drought is prompting a lot of soul-searching among water utilities looking for ways to make their customers more water-thrifty. Ideally, they’d like to do it without water cops, fines and the dreaded “R” word  rationing. State water regulators are instead encouraging people to consider something called “water budgeting.”

Officials at the Irvine Ranch Water District, based in the Orange County suburb of Irvine, say they were the first in the nation to adopt water budgeting. After a severe drought in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the district was looking for a way to create a water “conservation ethic” among its customers that was fair and also didn’t threaten the agency’s long-term financial health (the lower water sales = lower revenue problem). They came up with water budgeting.

Here’s the cheat sheet version: Every household gets a “reasonable” monthly water budget, based on specifics like family size and how big the property is.  In the Irvine district, that’s currently 50 gallons per person per day for indoor water use. Outdoors, it’s enough to maintain a grass lawn, even in a drought. If the customer stays within budget, he or she pays some of the lowest water rates in the county. Go over, they pay more. 

“If you’re wasting water, we’re going to send you a very strong price signal to let you know that you have wasteful use,” says Fiona Sanchez, the district’s director of water resources. “It’s designed to get the customer’s attention and think, ‘oh whoa, my water bill went from something like $28 to maybe $90.’” 

 In fact, Irvine’s “wasteful” water users can pay up to nine times as much as their very efficient neighbors. Sanchez says since they created water budgeting in 1991,  their customers use half as much water outdoors, and per capita water use is way under the state average. 

Cities in the Irvine Ranch Water District have cut outdoor water use by half since 1991 when the agency adopted "water budgeting."  Green parks still exist.

But water adviser Tom Ash, who helped create water budgeting, estimates only a dozen water agencies in the entire country charge for water this way. “I think it boils down to the fear of change,” he says. Felicia Marcus, chairman of California’s Water Resources Control Board, says it also takes a lot of time and resources to develop such a system.

Plus, politically, it can be tricky.  Some water boards view it as just a more subtle form of rationing, which they fear ratepayers will reject.  Right now water agencies are closely watching a lawsuit over water budgets in the city of San Juan Capistrano.  A taxpayers’ group there contends it violates California Prop 218, a law aimed at tamping down excessive taxes and fees.

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