It’s a story more complicated than it first appears. A drought looms. A community conserves. And then, even though less water is being used, the cost of water rises.
This is the situation facing Atlanta’s northern and western suburbs, where regional water wholesaler Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority is increasing rates by about 50 cents per thousand gallons this October. Atlanta communities had cut back water use significantly in response to a record drought in the region that started in 2007.
So what gives?
Beneath the surface, this issue is more complicated than it first appears. These Atlanta suburbs, like most communities in America, had not been paying the true cost of water.
In general, the price of water in the United States has little to do with supply and demand. Municipalities and regulators typically set rates as low as possible, so much so that 30 percent of all water utilities operate at a loss or a deficit. Often water rates will increase for a multitude of reasons.
Consider this: the American drinking water infrastructure network spans more than 700,000 miles—more than four times longer than the National Highway System—and in many municipalities, these pipes are more than 100 years old. An EPA study estimates that updating aging water infrastructure could cost nearly $500 billion over the next two decades.
Inevitably, water rates will go up in order to pay for the replacement of old infrastructure, new water treatment technologies for better water quality, and new water infrastructure to support increasing populations. Water efficiency can in fact help utilities save money over the long run by delaying costly capital expansions. And many homeowners may find that through water efficiency, even if they pay more per drop of water, they will still be paying less overall on their water bills than they would have before.
What’s more, Atlanta communities were asked to take drastic, necessary measures to reduce water use well beyond water efficiency or conservation. “What is painting efficiency in a bad light in the Southeast is the failure to recognize the difference between emergency response and efficiency. The extreme watering restrictions and mandated reductions we’ve experienced in Atlanta are emergency drought management tactics and they have devastating financial ramification just like any natural disaster such as hurricanes or tornados,” said Kathy Nguyen, water-efficiency program manager for Cobb County Water System, the Authority’s largest customer. “Efficiency is not about hardship, sacrifice, and mandates and it does not destroy a water system’s fiscal plan.”
Finally, tap water is, on the whole, inexpensive. Bottled water costs from 100 times to more than 2,000 times more than tap water. In the Atlanta metro area, the Cobb County rate increase will equate to about $3.25 more for water per month for the average family. In the long run, however, it’s still better to protect water supplies and systems for future generations.
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