One Colorado Town’s Answer to a Catch-22 of Water Conservation

Inefficient lawn irrigation is a common occurrence, and a big water waster, in western U.S. cities.  Photo: S. L. Postel
Inefficient lawn irrigation is a common occurrence, and a big water waster, in western U.S. cities. Photo: Sandra Postel

A few years ago, the town of Westminster, Colorado, just north of Denver, came eye-to-eye with an issue many water-conserving cities face when a resident posed this question at a public meeting, “Why do you ask me to conserve, and then raise my rates?”

With droughts dotting the country and a growing number of areas facing water shortages in the years ahead, conservation is a core strategy for meeting present and future water demands.

Yet water utilities often find themselves in a conundrum: how to encourage households to reduce their water use without (1) losing vital revenue to maintain their water systems or (2) facing a public outcry over the raising of water rates.

Much of the money needed to expand and upgrade water infrastructure – from pipes and pumps to treatment plants – comes from selling water. By some estimates, fixing and expanding the nation’s water infrastructure will require at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

It seems like a catch-22. Rivers are running dry and groundwater is being depleted, so conservation is an imperative. But conservation means a drop in the volume of water sold, which can cause a utility’s revenue to drop.

The obvious answer is to lift water rates, the price charged per gallon used. But that’s not always easy. Even though U.S. residents typically pay a lot less for water than they do for their cell phones or cable television, raising water rates by even a small amount can risk a public backlash.

Indeed, in 2010, the mayor of Livingston, California, faced a recall spurred in large part by voter anger over a water rate increase, and was booted out of office.

So, to provide a satisfactory answer —> Read More

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