Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Why Do We Call Them Water Bills?

Averaging 38.6 inches annually, Seattle has always been a little defensive about its reputation as a rainy place.  It gets ten inches less than Atlanta and about a little more than 9 inches less than Durham where I live each year.

As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I know that much of Seattle’s rain is in the form of mist and drizzle, while in the Southeast, it tends to fall in more concentrated doses.

But there is another difference that explains, in part, why Seattle has the highest rates for consumption of municipal water even if it doesn’t explain why Atlanta is a close second.

In Durham, the rate for 50 gallons a day is less than $10 a month, while in Seattle, water in that amount is $55 a month, and $42.64 in Atlanta.

Circle of Blue is a Seattle-based news/science source about water that I follow and highly recommend.  Journalist Brett Walton there, who also writes for the Federal Water Tap is fond of explaining that cities don’t charge for water.

They charge for the system to collect, treat and distribute water.  It only makes sense that water bills often include a charge for sewer as well as a fee for managing and rehabilitating storm runoff.

In Durham, those charges related to that amount of water come to another $48.52 compared to $116.23 in Seattle.  But anyone making these comparisons needs to read the fine print.

Durham is on a tiered rate system, with 50 gallons a day being the limit of the lowest tier.  So does Seattle.  But Seattle is way ahead the game when it comes to undergrounding the reservoirs it uses for treatment and distribution (not collection.)

In North Carolina, cities such as Durham, rely on surface water from streams and rivers to fill collection reservoirs, while half of the state’s population still relies on groundwater wells.

Of course, these two sources are interdependent because precipitation recharges groundwater which is then discharged to feed streams which fills reservoirs.

There are 37,662 miles of flowing surface water in North Carolina but half are assessed as impaired, meaning unsuitable for one or more uses, which in turn is why stream clean-up and protection should be an even higher priority here.

Seattle and other Pacific Northwest cities face a different problem.  Not only has snowpack diminished, it is projected to get much worse as climate change intensifies.

In the past, these cities would let their collection reservoirs draw down so they could accommodate the spring thaw.  Now they are trying to keep them at a higher level year around.

But Seattle and now Portland are leading the way in “undergrounding” their distribution and treatment reservoirs to meet federal mandates. 

For those of us in Durham, Little River Lake and Lake Michie are collection reservoirs while what was originally called the Durham Reservoir along Hillandale is one of two treatment and distribution reservoirs.

In the early 1900s, the latter was promoted by the Durham Traction Company (trolley system) as a recreation area.

One of the reasons that Seattle’s water rate is so high is that it has been a leader in converting reservoirs to another form of recreation.  It is undergrounding them and converting the tops to sports and recreation facilities such as softball and soccer fields.

These huge underground storage facilities will reduce evaporation and leakage and make the city’s water supply safer and more secure including the ability to withstand earthquakes.

Portland is not far behind.

One of my nephews earned an advanced degree from Utah State University in the science of horticulture with a specialization in water-efficient landscaping.

It is a discipline at the intersection of biology, design, engineering, politics, law, natural resources, history, psychology, economics, communications and social science.

His work has been helping municipal water utilities in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest instill conservation practices among residents and businesses.

Much of this is best done one on one.

It has always been interesting to me how little time municipalities spend on public outreach to help new residents understand norms and values related to recycling, yard waste, blowing clippings and leaves out of the street, picking up dog waste, etc.

It is because administrators and elected officials have trouble understanding that communication is a critical part of execution and compliance with codes.

Per capita water withdrawals peaked in the United States about 30 years ago, stabilized through 2005 and then began to decline.  By 2010, in the U.S. we withdrew about the same amount we did in 1970.

Public water supplies withdrew 42,000 million gallons per day or 12% of the total in 2010, 63% from surface sources, 57% of which was for domestic use including landscaping.  Of course, there are other demands on public water including commercial, industrial and institutional.

Those in the latter three categories that are withdrawing water from the Durham municipal supply include millions of visitors, university students and non-residents holding down two out of every three jobs here.

In 2010, Durham was using nearly 103 gallons per day per capita while Seattle was using 52 gallons compared to the national average of 89 gallons.  But these numbers can be misleading because this includes more than residential use.

Durham residential water use is projected to increase from 13.24 million gallons per day in 2010 to 22.92 in 2060 even though the population is projected to nearly double.

Seattle’s residential use peaked in 2004 and declined to 32.7 million gallons per day in 2010 and is projected to decline until leveling out in the 2030s and then increasing to 36.8 million gallons per day by 2060 (page 11.)

But hemmed in, its population is expected to increase by only 20% through 2040 by which time Durham will have become the same population that Seattle was in 2010 (page 13.)

Projections, such as these, are very difficult to make.  I smiled as developers along the coast in North Carolina lauded a new report that projects a smaller increase in sea levels by merely shortening the time horizon.

Cities can do so much more in water conservation.  In Durham we have yet to even mandate low-flow toilets in multi-family dwellings or recycling, for that matter.

We can beat these projections.  We must.  Shortening time horizons is shortchanging our children and grandchildren.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tiered systems hurt poor families disproportionately. It's a regressive tax.