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Promoting Water Waste?

How water and sewer rates discourage conservation and hurt small households

Climate scientists predict frequent, more intense droughts and periods of extreme flooding in the 21st century. It’s enough to drive anyone to do what they can to conserve water! But the way some water and sewer bills are currently calculated in North Carolina, people who do use less water are actually penalized, not rewarded.

Water meter

Charging by volume of water used gives families incentives to conserve water, but many utilities rely instead on fixed monthly fees.

Water and sewer utilities typically use either flat fees or a combination of flat fees and consumption-based charges to determine customer bills. Flat fees are the same each month no matter how water is used. They are appealing to many utility companies because they produce consistent monthly cash flow. However, small households and families making an effort to consume less water still have to pay the same amount as someone who uses much more water, removing any financial incentive to conserve! Consumption-based charges can also be unfair by offering the equivalent of volume discounts to larger water users (this is usually called a “decreasing-block rate”).

As an example, the NC Utilities Commission has given private water company Aqua NC permission to use several fixed charges to calculate customer rates. The company’s 15,000+ sewer customers pay a flat fee of $65/month, no matter how many times they flush the toilet. The company’s approved water rates include a relatively high flat base charge ($17.12) and a small volumetric charge ($5.03/1,000 gallons). Because of the number of fixed monthly charges, even one- and two-person households pay at least $82 a month to keep their water and sewer turned on. In one neighborhood where folks had typically not used a lot of water, Aqua NC asked the Utilities Commission to be allowed to charge customers more per 1,000 gallons of water to make up their desired rate of return – customers were actually charged MORE because of a history of low usage!

Customer Sally Stoehr in Raleigh tells of her frustration when she realized how little her bills depend on how much water she uses (or wastes):

“My November bill was $91.75, with a little over 50 gallons of water usage per day. My December bill was $112.87 with over 200 gallons of water usage per day. I was working on a bathroom remodel project with lots of tiling, painting and clean-up. TWICE, I forgot to turn off the hose outside where I was doing the rinsing and clean-up. One time it was for 2 hours. The second time it was ALL NIGHT LONG! In the end my penalty for all that wasted water: [only] $20.”

Clean Water for NC supports changing the rate setting policies of the NC Utilities Commission to protect small and low-income households and reward folks like Sally who want to do the right thing and conserve water!

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