Here’s why monthly water expenses around the country seem to defy logic.
Ever think you’d see the day when Californians were jealous of Seattle rain? All it took was a drought of epic proportions.
As you’ve probably heard by now, William Shatner thinks our wet weather is the solution to the Golden State’s problems — the actor says he’s raising funds to build a Seattle-to-California water pipeline.
Maybe Shatner’s just kidding, but given the severity of California’s drought, I’m sure plenty of folks down there are coveting our water.
I’m wondering, though, how they’d feel if they had to pay our water bills.
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Seattleites pay more for water than residents of any large city in California, according to data compiled by Circle of Blue, a Seattle-based news agency that reports on water issues. In fact, we pay more than just about anybody in the U.S.
Circle of Blue surveyed 30 major U.S. cities for their current utility water rates. In Seattle, for a typical family of four in which each person uses 50 gallons per day, the monthly bill totals $171.48.
For that level of usage, Seattle’s water is the most expensive in the survey — more than $20 higher than No. 2, Atlanta.
And — bafflingly — drought-stricken Fresno, Calif., has some of the cheapest water in the nation. At a 50-gallon-per-person usage, a family of four would pay just $41.63 — less than one-quarter of the cost in soggy Seattle.
It seems to defy logic. I asked Circle of Blue news correspondent Brett Walton to help me understand.
As it turns out, when you pay for water, no cost is assigned to the water itself. All you’re paying for is the infrastructure. The water has to be treated, pumped and delivered — that’s covered by your water bill. Sewer prices, often higher than water rates, cover the cost of cleansing the water that goes down the drain. And stormwater fees pay for projects that reduce polluted runoff (unlike Seattle, many municipalities do not include stormwater fees in the monthly water bill; instead, general tax revenues are used).
Seattle has such high rates because we’ve invested more than most places in our water infrastructure in recent years. We relocated our reservoirs underground, in compliance with federal mandates, to keep our drinking water safe from contaminants. And in partnership with King County, we opened Brightwater, a state-of-the-art (and very expensive, at $1.8 billion) sewage-treatment plant.
“The city also invests in watershed restoration — few cities can claim to own the land that their drinking water comes from, as Seattle does in the Cedar River,” Walton told me. “And some taxes are embedded in the water rate, which not all cities have.”
As for Fresno, until recently they were exclusively using groundwater, a relatively cheap source. But they overpumped their aquifers and deferred needed maintenance on their distribution system.
Those avoided costs are now being addressed. The city is investing $429 million in infrastructure, and water rates will double over the next five years.
Folks might grumble about those higher water bills, but they do promote conservation.With our expensive water in Seattle, brown lawns and dusty cars are not uncommon sights in the dry summer months. In fact, since the late 1980s, the city’s total water usage has declined by more than 40 percent, despite a population gain of 135,000.
In 2010, the average Seattleite used 52 gallons of water per day — far below the national average of 89 gallons.