With the city still buzzing about the mysterious (although maybe not for long), nefarious "wet prince of Bel Air" who uses nearly 12 million gallons of water per year, we other Angelenos are patting ourselves on the back for our conservation efforts. In recent months, we've saved around 18% from our 2013 consumption levels - not too shabby!
But why, you may wonder, might your water bill still increase soon? Is this evidence that no good deed really does go unpunished? The LA Times recently published a piece reporting that, starting next year, customers of the Department of Water and Power will see an average monthly increase of $1.80 on their bills. This is a modest increase overall, but it may baffle the average Angeleno who's worked to conserve this year.
It's a fact that, since we're using less water, agencies are taking in less revenue from water sales and may have to make some of that up. But price increases aren't your punishment for saving too much water. Here are a few things to keep in mind when even water-sipping DWP customers start receiving slightly higher bills about nine months from now (and why higher prices aren't necessarily cause for panic):
- We must all continue to conserve. Some Angelenos may feel that if their water costs don't decrease commensurate with their conservation they may as well stop making special efforts to conserve. But the simple fact is that water indeed will cost a bit more per gallon next year, so customers who don't continue or implement conservation measures will see more significant bill increases. So there's still a financial incentive to conserve. But beyond the potential financial benefits, we should all aim to save water--and continue to do so even if El Nino brings crazy rain this winter--because it's the right thing to do for our communities and our state. Saving water eases the pressure we place on the rivers and estuaries that supply our cities. Saving water also lets us put that saved water to better use, buy less of the expensive imported water, and store water to help get us through the next drought. Because we know it's coming.
- DWP has instituted drought rates. Drought rates are standard practice among many well-managed California water agencies. These rates are simply special pricing (pre-approved in the last rate setting process a few years ago) that takes effect during a water shortage. The purpose of the drought rates is to allow a water agency to recover necessary revenue during a water shortage, when some costs may differ from standard costs during non-shortage years. Right now, for example, we are indeed using less water, but more affordable local water supplies like stored water and groundwater are way down, meaning DWP must still buy more of the pricier imported water. The cost of that imported water, by the way, has increased during the drought as it has also become more scarce. Drought rates allow an agency to adjust and take these extraordinary costs into account.
- Billing increases aren't exclusive to LA. In fact, rate increases in times of drought are common all over the state. And unlike DWP, many water suppliers don't have drought rates ready to go, so when water gets scarce (whether or not customers conserve), water agencies have to scramble to figure out how to get the revenue they need to continue to operate. And if they don't already have drought rates in place, water suppliers haven't necessarily thought through how to adjust rates to make up for revenue shortfalls. They have to make these determinations in a crisis and then put the rate adjustments through a public notification and approval process. Next thing you know, it's been 6 or more months before new rates are in place--if in fact they're ever put in place--and then agencies may have even more revenue loss to make up for, resulting in larger bill increases for customers in those areas.
- Not all costs decrease as water use declines. Some of DWP's operating costs have indeed decreased as we've used less water. These costs can include things like the energy used to transport water to where it's needed and the chemicals used to treat water and make it safe. But not all costs decline with less water use. There usually won't be a decrease in fixed costs unrelated to water volume, such as infrastructure maintenance and staff salaries, and as mentioned above, some other costs have increased. Even during a drought, water agencies have to make sure to keep the water flowing to meet our (reduced) needs.
- We need to invest in infrastructure to secure our water supply. This isn't directly related to the current short-term rate increase, but will play a role in DWP's five-year rate request happening this fall and winter. As last year's upsetting 20-million-gallon main rupture near UCLA made clear in dramatic fashion, LA's infrastructure isn't in the best shape and the system is rife with leaks. The average Los Angeles water pipe is 58 years old (although some are up to 130 years old), and under current practices, DWP expects full replacement to take at least 250 years, and by that time many pipes will be well past the end of their useful life of 75 to 120 years. Older infrastructure (like the 93-year-old UCLA pipe) is at a higher risk of leaks, especially if there's any seismic activity, so it's important to upgrade our infrastructure to protect water delivery and avoid waste. The agency's upcoming expected rate increase will help to cover the cost of accelerating much-needed pipe replacement.
So the moral is to keep conserving water to benefit both your wallet and our state's water system. For inspiration, here are some pictures of beautiful California-friendly landscapes and a graphic showing potential water, energy and money savings from just replacing your washing machine with a water-efficient one.