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In The News

A USA TODAY study of residential water rates over the past 12 years finds that crumbling infrastructure is forcing repairs from coast to coast, with costs more than doubling in 1 of 4 localities.

By Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY

Publication date: 5:58AM EDT September 29. 2012

Original Article: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2012/09/27/rising-water-rates/1595651/

 

While most Americans worry about gas and heating oil prices, water rates have surged in the past dozen years, according to a USA TODAY study of 100 municipalities. Prices at least doubled in more than a quarter of the locations and even tripled in a few.

 

Consumers could easily overlook the steady drip, drip, drip of water rate hikes, yet the cost of this necessity of life has outpaced the percentage increases of some of these other utilities, carving a larger slice of household budgets in the process.

 

"I don't know how they expect people to keep paying more for water with the cost of gas and day care and everything else going up," complains Jacquelyn Moncrief, 60, a Philadelphia homeowner who says the price hikes would force her to make food-or-water decisions. She gathered signatures on a petition opposing a proposed water rate increase in her city this year.

 

USA TODAY's study of residential water rates over the past 12 years for large and small water agencies nationwide found that monthly costs doubled for more in 29 localities. The unique look at costs for a diverse mix of water suppliers representing every state and Washington, D.C. found that a resource long taken for granted will continue to become more costly for millions of Americans. Indeed, rates haven't crested yet because huge costs to upgrade or repair pipes, reservoirs and treatment plants loom nationwide.

 

VIDEO: Water bills rising quickly in the USA

 

In three municipalities — Atlanta, San Francisco and Wilmington, Del. — water costs tripled or more. Monthly costs topped $50 for consumers in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego who used 1,000 cubic feet of water, a typical residential consumption level in many areas. Officials in the three municipalities and elsewhere, however, say actual consumption is often lower. But conservation efforts counter-intuitively may raise water rates in some localities.

 

The trend toward higher bills is being driven by:

 

Higher rates still ahead

 

The costs continue to rise even though residential water usage dropped sharply nationwide in the past three decades amid conservation efforts.

U.S. water systems will need as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements by 2035 to keep up with drinking water needs, according to a survey of industry experts released in June.

 

The bond debt needed to fund those projects' work will be passed on to consumers, including the many Americans struggling with the economic fallout of the great recession.

 

A virtually irreplaceable resource that Americans rely on for health and daily living "could potentially get more and more expensive," says John Chevrette, who heads the management consulting arm of Black & Veatch, the firm that conducted the industry survey.

 

He predicts rate increases of 5% to 15% every few years, saying the cost of water "could take a larger and more significant bite out of otherwise disposable income."

 

"You're talking about greater than inflationary costs," says Doug Scott, managing director for Fitch Ratings, which similarly projects 5% annual rate increases among the many water and sewer agencies his company tracks.

Some water agencies, including Philadelphia, have special water programs to help cut costs for those with low incomes. Even so, the economic forecasts frighten Moncrief, a single mother who bought her home in Philadelphia's Mount Airy neighborhood decades ago, and now lives there on a disability income.

 

The monthly cost of 1,000 cubic feet of water in her hometown has jumped 164%, to $39.22, since 2001. Even when the costs were lower, Moncrief says at times she had to work out installment payments with the Philadelphia Water Department.

 

Testifying at a July hearing in an ongoing water rate increase proceeding, Ruth Bazemore said she and other Philadelphia senior citizens were astounded that the city's water commissioner proposed hikes that would "increase our bills by almost 30% in less than three years."

 

Community opposition prompted a tentative settlement that would save consumers at least $80 per year from the ultimate cost of the city's original proposal, says Robert Ballenger, a Community Legal Services attorney who represents the public in the Philadelphia rate hike proceeding.

 

Bazemore, a representative of the Action Alliance of Senior Citizens of Greater Philadelphia, says even a lower increase "would be difficult for a lot of people to pay."

 

Efforts to compare water costs of any given area with another produce misleading or even false results, because of differences in population, geography, geology, bonding debt for infrastructure work and other variables. However, what most water agencies across the nation share is increasing costs that make higher bills all but inevitable.

 

In Baltimore, where water costs are up 140% since 2001, the public works agency in the last decade completed a $65 million upgrade of the water system's Ashburton Filtration Plant.

 

After a series of major water main breaks in 2009, the city made plans to speed the pace of pipe cleaning, relining and rehabilitation work to 40 miles per year, a five-fold increase. The cost? About $300 million over five years, says agency spokesman Kurt Kocher.

 

At the same time, Baltimore, like water systems nationwide, was forced to implement costly security upgrades at its facilities. "It's not the world of 1990. It's the post-9/11 security world we have to deal with," says Kocher.

 

'A race against time'

 

In San Francisco, the monthly cost of 1,000 cubic feet of water jumped nearly 211% since 2001 as the city's regional water system ended a seven-year rate freeze and began a massive, five-year infrastructure improvement program.

Harlan Kelly Jr., the system's assistant general manager for infrastructure, says the work was vital because the freeze had left little funding for expanding and strengthening the system that serves more than 30 cities and 2.6 million people in the Bay Area.

 

A 2002 city economic study warned that the Bay Area would suffer a $30 billion economic hit if an earthquake severely disrupted the water network for two months. The California Division of Safety of Dams delivered an even more immediate warning in 2001, deeming the Calaveras Dam seismically unsafe. That forced the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to drain the reservoir created by the dam to a third of its normal level, significantly reducing the system's water storage.

 

"I think everyone realized this work was needed," says Kelly. "It's a race against time. Here in California, it's not if, it's when" the next major earthquake will hit.

Consumers have little choice but to pay for infrastructure improvements and repairs to the nation's often aging water systems, says Scott, the Fitch Ratings executive.

 

If they don't, water mains and other parts of the systems "will break, and the breaks will be catastrophic. It would be the equivalent of somebody not replacing their water heater when it is leaking, and then having it fall from the attic and tear up their entire house."

 

Municipal water systems typically fund major repairs and other infrastructure work by issuing bonds that are repaid over time. The annual cost of paying off debt servicing those bonds is passed on to consumers in higher rates.

 

The financial impact is already being felt. Fitch Ratings showed water agencies' debt per customer rose from $1,012 in 2006 to $1,611 in 2011.

 

Diane Clausen, a Seattle Public Utilities official, says her agency has outpaced many other municipal water suppliers by working to place protective coverings over reservoirs, building a filtration plant on one major water source and installing an ultraviolet treatment facility on another major source.

 

"We've pretty much done our major capital projects," says Clausen. "The debt service on those are included in the rates that our customers pay, so the rates for us, we believe, would tend to be higher than the rates for other utilities that aren't as far along in their infrastructure development."

 

Similarly, Atlanta officials say their rates — up 233% since 2001 for monthly usage of 1,000 cubic feet of water — partly result from $1.3 billion in spending to upgrade the city's water supply system in compliance with federal clean water mandates.

 

Conserving, yet costs still rise

 

Unique geographic conditions and other circumstances can also raise costs. In Augusta, Maine, the monthly cost of 1,000 cubic feet of water has topped $40 since 2000. That's partly because the city has a small base of approximately 5,800 mostly residential customers and lacks major industrial customers that would help share the cost, says Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District.

 

"Coupled with our 10 storage tanks, deep frost conditions — pipes are literally 'six feet under' to avoid freezing — low (number of) customers per mile of pipe and lots of granite and hills, it gets expensive," says Tarbuck.

U.S. homeowners who reduce their water consumption in an effort to save money can cut their costs. But they may end up raising the rates they're charged. Why? Because water suppliers collect less income as consumption drops, but ongoing costs -- such as bonding debt, salaries and chemicals -- either increase or, at best, remain stable.

A 2010 report by the Water Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that studies drinking water issues, concluded that residential usage per customer dropped more than 380 gallons annually in the last 30 years, a changing era when conservation became more prevalent. Compounded over time, the report says the trend implies that a customer would have used 11,673 fewer gallons in 2008 than an identical customer in 1978, a 13.2% decline.

As a result, many water agencies have been forced to raise rates.

"When we explain that part of the reason you're paying more is because you're using less, that doesn't go over real well with a lot of people," says Joseph Clare, the Philadelphia Water Department's deputy commissioner for finance and administration.

 

The 2012 drought that continues to hold roughly half the nation in its grip has also had an impact on some water rates. In March, the Midland, Texas, City Council unanimously imposed a five-fold price increase on water customers who use more than 10,000 gallons per month, which surpasses consumption for a typical family.

 

In El Paso, the drought cut the city's ability to draw from the Rio Grande River, the source for about half the area's water. To help make up for the loss, El Paso Water Utilities for about 15 days in late May and early June ran its water desalination plant at its full 27.5 million gallons-per-day capacity, making brackish groundwater fit for drinking, said Christina Montoya, an agency spokeswoman.

 

"This is the first time that's ever happened," she said.

Although Scott and others expect increases in water costs around the nation to remain both regular and high, the good news is that the dollar costs are still relatively low in many municipalities.

"It's going to be a pretty good bargain for the foreseeable future," Scott says.

Try telling that to Americans hard pressed by the still sluggish economy, including low-income residents and senior citizens living on fixed incomes.

 

Something has to give

 

Philadelphia homeowner Moncrief, who delights in watering her garden into bloom, says she understands her city's water agency faces higher costs for water system projects. That includes the $50 million construction of a 5-million-gallon storage tank to prevent storm sewers from overflowing into the Schuylkill River — source of about 42% of local drinking water.

But she says higher rates — even those under the tentative compromise in the Philadelphia water rate increase proceeding — would make it harder for her to pay "my medical costs … co-pays for medication," upkeep of her home, even food.

 

"It's been quite stressful just trying to budget. How am I going to maintain all these things on a fixed income that's not going to increase?" said Moncrief, who adds that she's cut back on hot baths and takes shorter showers.

Responding to that type of consumer concern, some municipalities have tried to limit or delay rate increases. For instance, Antioch, Calif., officials in May opted to defer some capital spending and use the savings and other measures to delay previously announced plans for an 8% water rate increase.

Clare, Philadelphia's deputy water commissioner, notes that his agency held rates stable from 1993 until 2001. But, ultimately, costs had to go up to maintain crucial water supply and delivery systems, he says.

"It's going to be a hardship for me; I think it's going to be a hardship for a lot of people," says Moncrief. "But there's a greater sense of hope and possibility … when you know the increase is not going to be as high" as originally proposed.

"I may not be able to eat meat five days a week, but maybe I can eat meat three days a week."

 

Contributing: Oliver St. John, Tom McGarrity

 

ABOUT THIS REPORT

How project was done

To document the rising cost of drinking water, USA TODAY started by obtaining periodic municipal water-cost surveys conducted since 2000 or 2001 by Black & Veatch and Raftelis Financial Consultants, private firms that advise water agencies on financial issues. USA TODAY verified those companies' data with each municipality and also gathered 2012 costs from the localities. Reporters then independently collected the same information from dozens of other municipalities to cover 100 in all, spanning all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

 

More about the data

 

Local water costs vary widely because of geography, climate, population, a water company's borrowing costs and other factors. That makes it virtually impossible to compare one city's water costs to another's. For its survey, USA TODAY defined a typical household as one using roughly 7,500 gallons (1,000 cubic feet) a month and having a meter size of about 5/8 inch, or the closest equivalent. Actual average consumption may vary. Weighted averages were used for locations where rates change seasonally. The percentage change in rates shown is based on the change from 2000 or 2001, depending on the location.

 

 

WaterSense estimates there are currently 222 million residential toilets in the United States.
(July 2007, US population 301.1M)

 

Number of Toilets by Flush Volume and Potential Savings

Gallons per Flush (GPF)

# of toilets (millions)

# of toilets replaced given 10% replacement of existing fixtures (millions)

Savings per flush by switching to 1.28 HET (gpf)

5.0 67 6.7 3.72
3.6 33 3.3 2.22
1.6 122 12.2 0.32
Total 222 22.2 ----

 

Calculation 1:Total Daily Savings ( Assuming 6.8 flushes per day)

5.0 GPF= 169,483,200 gallons , 3.5 GPF = 49,816,800 gallons, 1.6 GPF = 26,547,200 gallons

Total Daily Savings 245,847,200 gallons/day

Calculation 2.Total Annual Savings 89.7 billion gallons/year.

 

United States Environmental Protection Agency: Residential toilets account for approximately 30 percent of indoor residential water use in the United States -equivalent to more than 2.1 trillion gallons of water consumed each year.

American Water
Works Association

 

 

United States Environmental Protection Agency:

Over the course of you lifetime, you will likely flush the toilet nearly 140,000 times

 

United States Environmental Protection Agency: 20% of all toilets leak

 

Leaking toilets (even the ones you only hear at night) can lose 30 to 500 gallons per day

 

Smarter Flush Dual Flush Toilet Conversion Kits use on average 1.2 gallons per flush.

 

 

 

The Ten Biggest American Cities That Are Running Out Of Water

Provided By:

By Charles B. Stockdale, Michael B. Sauter,
Douglas A. McIntyre

Publication date: Nov. 1, 2010

 

Some parts of the United States have begun to run low on water. That is probably not much of a surprise to people who live in the arid parts of America that have had water shortages for decades or even centuries. No one who has been to the Badlands in South Dakota would expect to be able to grow crops there.

 

The water problem is worse than most people realize, particularly in several large cities which are occasionally low on water now and almost certainly face shortfalls in a few years. This is particularly true if the change in global weather patterns substantially alters rainfall amounts in some areas of the US.

 

24/7 Wall St. looked at an October 2010 report on water risk by environmental research and sustainability group Ceres. We also considered a comprehensive July 2010 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which mapped areas at high risk of water shortage conflict. 24/7 Wall St. also did its own analysis of water supply and consumption in America's largest cities, and focused on the thirty largest metropolitan areas. One goal was to identify potential conflicts in regions that might have disputed rights over large supplies of water and the battles that could arise from these disputes. And, 24/7 Wall St. examined geographic areas that have already been plagued by drought and water shortages off and on.

 

The analysis allowed us to choose ten cities that are likely to face severe shortages in the relatively near-term future.

 

Some of these are likely to be obvious to the reader. The area around Los Angeles was once too dry to sustain the population of a huge city. But infrastructure was built that allowed water to be pumped in from east of the region. Las Vegas had similar problems. It was part of a great desert until Lake Mead was created by the Hoover Dam built on the Colorado River.

 

Severe droughts that could affect large cities are first a human problem. The competition for water could make life in some of America's largest cities nearly unbearable for residents. A number of industries rely on regular access to water. Some people would be out of work if these industries had poor prospects for continued operation. The other important trouble that very low water supplies creates is that cities have sold bonds based on their needs for infrastructure to move, clean and supply water. Credit ratings agencies may not have taken drought issues into account at the level that they should. Extreme disruptions of the water supply of any city would have severe financial consequences.

 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report takes the following into account when assessing the likelihood of water shortages: "The risk to water sustainability is based on the following criteria: (1) projected water demand as a share of available precipitation; (2) groundwater use as a share of projected available precipitation; (3) susceptibility to drought; (4) projected increase in freshwater withdrawals; and (5) projected increase in summer water deficit."

 

The ten cities on this list are the ones with the most acute exposure to problems that could cause large imbalances of water supply and demand. There are a number of metropolitan areas that could face similar problems but their risks are not quite as high. The water problem for U.S. cities is, although it may not be evident, one of the largest issues that faces urban areas over the next ten years.

 

These are the ten largest cities by population that have the greatest chance of running out of water.

 

10. Orlando, Fla.

Major Water Supply: Floridan Aquifer
Population (U.S. rank): 235,860 (80th)
Population Growth Rate: 26.8% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 48.35 in.

 

North-central Florida, especially Orange County where Orlando is located, has experienced frequent droughts in the last decade. As a consequence, the area has implemented extreme conservation measures, including aggressive water-rationing policies and lawn-watering bans. After the drought and resulting wildfires subsided, however, Orlando faced another problem. As of 2013, Orlando will no longer be able to increase the rate at which it uses water from the Floridan aquifer, the city's main source of fresh water supply. This presents a major problem for city officials: how does the limited water supply continue to meet demand for one of the fastest-growing regions in the state? It is estimated that water usage in the Orlando area will increase from 526 million gallons per day in 1995 to 866 million in 2020. On the city website, the mayor is quoted, saying: "Orlando Utilities Commission water usage trends show Orlando water demand exceeding the supply by approximately 2014 if no action is taken." There are plans in the works to tap the St. John's River for irrigation, and eventually drinking water. Many, however, are skeptical that even this will be enough to meet Orlando's growing demand.

 

9. Atlanta

Major Water Supply: Lake Lanier, Ga.
Population (U.S. rank): 540,922 (33rd)
Population Growth Rate: 29.9% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 50.2 in.

 

Between 2007 and 2008, the Southeast experienced a major drought, which depleted the region's major water supplies. No city in the south suffered more than Atlanta, the second-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the last eight years. The crisis began when the Army Corps of Engineers released more than 20 billion gallons of water from Lake Lanier, the city's primary source of water. Continued poor rainfall brought the lake to its lowest recorded levels. At one point, city officials reported there was only three months left of stored fresh water to supply Atlanta. The drought eventually subsided and consistent rain returned the lake to less dangerous levels. However, Atlanta may continue to be at risk, as the lake is the site of an ongoing legal conflict between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, all of which rely on the reservoir for fresh water. Last year, a federal judge declared Atlanta's withdrawals from the lake illegal, and if the ruling stands, the city will lose roughly 40% of its water supply by 2012.

 

8. Tucson, Ariz.

Major Water Supply: Local ground water
Population (U.S. rank): 543,000 (32nd)
Population Growth Rate: 20% since 2000
Average Annual Rainfall: 12.17 in.

 

The NRDC study rates Pima County, Ariz., where Tuscon is located, as an area with extreme risk of water shortage. The city is in the Sonoran Desert, an extremely arid region that receives less than 12 inches of rainfall each year. Currently, the Tucson region uses about 350,000 acre-feet of water per year. At this rate, Tucson's groundwater supply, which now provides the majority of the city's water, has a very limited life span. In addition to this, the city is currently bringing in 314,000 acre-feet per year from the Colorado River under the Central Arizona Project. However, Tuscon is growing rapidly. This, combined with the political uncertainty of the Central Arizona Project allocation, places Tucson at extreme risk for future water shortages.

 

7. Las Vegas

Major Water Supply: Lake Mead/Colorado River
Population (U.S. rank): 567,000 (28th)
Population Growth Rate: 18.6% since 2000
Average Annual Rainfall: 4.5 in.

 

In the middle of the Mojave Desert, with an annual precipitation rate of only 10 cm, Las Vegas must rely on distant sources for its fresh water. The city's main source is Lake Mead, which supplies 85% of the water used in the Las Vegas Valley. Unfortunately, the lake is 59% empty and is approaching its first water shortage ever. In addition to Las Vegas, it would affect other areas of Nevada and Arizona. Moreover, it could potentially stop the Hoover Dam from producing electricity -- as soon as 2013. This would affect many big California cities that receive hydroelectric power through the dam.

 

6. Fort Worth, Texas

Major Water Supply: Multiple
Population (U.S. rank): 727,577 (17th)
Population Growth Rate: 36.1% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 34.01 inches

 

As Fort Worth continues to grow (its population is expected to hit 4.3 million by 2060), the amount of water demand has continued to exceed the amount of water available through local supply. As a result, the city, which is in Tarrant County, must rely on storage water, making the system much more exposed to the worst effects of prolonged drought. To remedy this problem, the Tarrant Regional Water District is trying to bring in more water from Oklahoma's Red River. Oklahoma, wishing to preserve its water sources, limits interstate water sales. Fort Worth has countered with a lawsuit, which is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

 

5. San Francisco Bay Area

Major Water Supply: Various, including Lake Hetch Hetchy
Population (U.S. rank): San Francisco: 815,359 (12th), Oakland: 409,189 (44th), San Jose: 964,695 (10th)
Population Growth Rate: 20% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 20.4 in.

 

Much like the Southeast in the early 2000's, California has experienced intermittent droughts that have brought the area's water supply to the brink of disaster. After several years of drought between 2005 and 2007, the Bay Area, which represents more than 3.7 million people, was forced to adopt aggressive water usage restrictions. Legal battles ensued between San Francisco area legislators and those in the Sacramento delta who believed they deserved Bay Area water from major sources, like Lake Hetch Hetchy. According to the NRDC and Ceres studies, the San Francisco Bay Area, including adjacent cities San Jose and Oakland, are "very likely" to experience a severe crisis as a result of water shortage within the next 50 years.

 

4. San Antonio, Texas

Major Water Supply: Various ground water sources
Population (U.S. rank): 1,373,668 (7th)
Population Growth Rate: 20% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 30.24 in.

 

Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is located, possesses the highest rating given by the Natural Resources Defense Council with regards to water sustainability. This means that the area is at extremely high risk for water demand exceeding supply by 2050 if no major systematic changes are made. As most surface water from lakes and rivers in Texas have already been claimed by varying districts across Texas, most counties are now looking at groundwater to meet future demand. San Antonio has attempted to secure water from a number of Texas groundwater conservation districts. Due to legal obstacles, this has proven to be difficult. Today, many experts, including members of the Texas Water Development Board, recommend undertaking a major project to ensure future sustainability, such as a desalination plant on the Gulf Coast.

 

3. Phoenix

Major Water Supply: Colorado River Basin
Population (U.S. rank): 1,593,659 (5th)
Population Growth Rate: 21.2% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 8.3 in.

 

Like many of the other western cities on this list, Phoenix is extremely dependent on water imported from the Colorado River. This is because nearly half of the water the city's residents use comes from this significant source. As the Colorado River Basin enters the eleventh year of its drought, the city's reliance on the river may soon become a serious problem. If the drought continues, water deliveries to Arizona could potentially be cut back. To keep up a sufficient water supply, Phoenix is adopting an aggressive campaign to recycle water, replenish groundwater and try to dissuade over-consumption. Time will tell if it these measures will be enough.

 

2. Houston

Major Water Supply: Jasper Aquifer, Lake Houston, Lake Conroe
Population (U.S. rank): 2,257,926 (4th)
Population Growth Rate: 15.6% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 53.34 inches

 

Throughout most of its history, the city of Houston primarily drew water from the Jasper Aquifer, located along the southeastern coast of Texas. Over the last 30 years, the city began to suffer from dramatic rises in sea level of nearly an inch a year. Geologists eventually realized that the cause was Houston's withdrawal of fresh water from the aquifer located under the city. This discovery forced city officials to use nearby Lake Houston and Lake Conroe for municipal water instead of the aquifer. Since 2000, Houston has been the fifth fastest-growing city in the country, and its presence in an area with high drought likelihood makes it an immediate risk for serious water shortages.

 

1. Los Angeles

Major Water Supply: Colorado River Basin
Population (U.S. rank): 3,831,868 (2nd)
Population Growth Rate: 3.7% since 2000
Average annual rainfall: 14.77 in.

 

In the 1980's, Los Angeles suffered a major crisis when the city was forced to stop using 40% of its drinking water due to industrial runoff contamination. Like Las Vegas, the city now relies on importing water from the Colorado River via hundreds of miles of aqueducts. The Colorado may only be a temporary solution, however, as the city continues to increase its demand at an unsustainable rate. In its utility risk rating, Ceres gave the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power the highest likelihood of risk among the cities it assessed. That list included Atlanta and the Forth Worth area. On top of this, the Hoover Dam, which is the main source of electricity for L.A. and much of the greater Southwest, is also producing at a lower rate than it has historically. Some scientists suspect this drop-off will continue to a point where its electricity production is too small to sustain the dam economically. Los Angeles, even if the dam doesn't cease production in 2013, as some predict, still faces serious water shortages.