At a meeting today, a district board member asked how to answer the question he hears all the time: If I’m conserving water, why are my rates going up? How come I’m paying more for less water?
Oddly, no one on the panel told him the real answer. They mentioned deferred maintenance and the costs of obtaining additional supply, but no one explained it quite right. Mr. Board Member, next time someone in the public asks you why they’re going to be paying more for less water, here’s the answer you need.
You have always been selling two different things. You sell water*, and you sell reliability. By unfortunate chance, the costs of both of those are going up right now. You may be developing additional sources of water that cost more. But a lot of districts are going to need money to keep their reliability perfect, because their systems are nearing the end of their designed life and it will cost a lot to replace them.
Customers are not going to like hearing that they have to pay more for reliability, (a little bit because it is invisible and people really do not understand invisible things) mostly because districts have done such a good job buffering their customers from water delivery interruptions that it has never occurred to most Californian urban customers that reliability could be anything other than perfect. They think that having the water on during the night, or all the days of the week, is just how it is. They’ve never approached the tap and wondered whether water will come out this time. Deferred maintenance is coming due and many districts are facing the failure of systems installed in the fifties or before. Reliability must be paid for anew, and that’s why districts will need to charge more even as they’re asking people to use less water.
So that’s what you should tell the public, Mr. District Board Member. They won’t like it. Fortunately, this is a self-correcting feedback loop. If they don’t let you raise water rates, the district won’t be able to provide perfect water reliability forever. (It will probably cannibalize itself first, making it even harder to restore completely reliable deliveries in the long run, but that’s the cost of short-sightedness.) When water deliveries aren’t reliable, people will notice that immediately and realize they want it. Then you’ll be able to explain about the rates again.
[In the alternate, you could try to explain to them how expensive it would be if they were using as much water as they always have, and paying for the costs of developing new sources and the capital costs of replacing your system at the same time. With water conservation, at least you have a chance of deferring the costs of developing new sources.]
*Not precisely. But close enough for this conversation.