Seattle Public Utilities is beginning an assessment of its rate structure. Is there a better way to charge for water, as people use less and less of it?

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As rain rolls into the region at last this weekend, with it comes a silver lining for gardeners: lower water bills.

But while some of us open those slim white envelopes from Seattle Public Utilities with dread — $300 water bills are not uncommon for devoted gardeners in Pugetopia — Seattle’s recent dry spell (only 0.03 inches of rain were recorded between July 23 and our current storm) actually was not a financial gusher for the utility.

That’s because the dry, hot weather came so late this summer, and continued so deeply into autumn, the utility already had phased out its peak season surcharge, in place between May 16 and Sept. 15, as the heat and dryness continued relentlessly on.

It also was such a wet spring and start to summer that instead of being a big year for water consumption, 2012 will end up right on target for normal usage.

Besides, SPU’s customers are such ardent conservationists, they are using less water than ever, despite population increases.

It’s a trend that has been under way for some time.

SPU customers today use about 120 million gallons of water a day on average, while in 1990, they used 171 million, said Bruce Flory, senior economist for the utility.

“You have less units to spread your costs over,” said Ray Hoffman, director of Seattle Public Utilities. “That makes your rates higher, and that’s a challenge, whether you are selling petroleum or water or Slinkys.”

The declining usage is a result of a combination of a conservation ethic along with changes in plumbing codes, and the impact of price.

In inflation-adjusted terms, water rates have quintupled since 1981, mostly because of the substantial decrease in consumption.

The utility also has been in a long season of spending since the 1990s, including paying for lids on reservoirs in the city, building two drinking-water treatment plants and a $100 million habitat conservation plan for the Cedar River, and paying a $40 million settlement for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Paying for all that as usage declines has meant charging ever more per unit of water sold. But conservation also has meant a significant delay in the need to add new sources of supply, Hoffman said.

Twenty years ago, Hoffman said, the utility projected a new source of drinking water would be needed by 2000. That projection later was extended to 2030, and by now, no new need for additional supply is envisioned until 2060.

Seattle Public Utility customers are blessed with a pure, abundant source of fresh water, primarily delivered from the mountains of the Cedar River watershed.

But while usage patterns have changed — and weather, too — the utility hasn’t examined its rate structure in decades. So SPU is beginning a review of how it charges for water, Hoffman said. The goal is to look at equity across customer classes, as well as providing for revenue certainty that takes account of customers’ declining use.

One potential change could be to charge more for fixed costs, such as a base service charge, and pin less of the utility’s revenue to volume of use.

After a review at the staff level, the utility will make a recommendation to the mayor, who will in turn present and propose changes to the City Council.

One thing is for sure: “We are glad to see the rain,” Hoffman said.

He’s far from alone.

“Thank goodness,” said Val Easton, a Seattle horticulturist and author. “I worry about the street trees and trees on public property that aren’t getting watered.

“I grew up here and when it doesn’t rain, it makes me uneasy.”

This, she said, will be remembered by her as a year of the unthinkable:

“I got tired of vine-ripened tomatoes.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @lyndavmapes.