If you thought your Spokane city water bill was high this month, wait until next summer.
City officials are considering an increase in water rates for people who irrigate above a modest threshold as part of an emerging conservation program.
The higher fees were proposed Monday by Mayor Dennis Hession as part of a $528 million budget for utility and general fund services in 2007. The budget proposal includes rate increases of 3 percent to 3.5 percent for water, sewer and garbage services, but no increases in general tax rates.
City officials and environmentalists say that charging more for higher water use is one of the best ways to encourage conservation. This comes amid growing recognition that the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer is a finite resource that must be conserved if the region is to continue to grow economically.
Spokane last year initiated a graduated water rate in which smaller volumes are billed at lower rates. That was done to protect low-income and elderly residents from the shock of rate increases over the years, and to reward conservation vigilance. Now, the city wants to add an additional charge for monthly consumption above 4,500 cubic feet of water, or 33,750 gallons.
The proposed increase for summertime residential water use is expected to provide the city’s water utility with a 3 percent increase in its budget for 2007, and forestall the need for higher charges on all water bills.
Residents next year would pay the 2006 rate of $29.70 for the first 4,500 cubic feet of water each month and then $38.25 for the next 4,500 cubic feet or more. Commercial rates would not be affected by the change.
Water department Director Brad Blegen said that 4,500 cubic feet of water a month should be sufficient for household use and to keep a lawn green on a 7,500-square-foot city lot.
However, residential water bills of $150 are not uncommon in Spokane, in part because the city reads meters and charges for water use every other month.
“We are trying to get the per-person water use down by 20 percent,” Blegen said. “If you really want to work on it you can have no rate increase.”
The city is encouraging residents to keep an eye on how much water they use on lawns and landscapes. Experts say an inch of water a week, whether from sprinklers or Mother Nature, should be sufficient. The City Council office earlier this year was handing out water conservation packets that included cups for measuring how much water is going onto lawns.
Blegen said the city is coming under new regulations from the state health and ecology departments to develop more aggressive conservation programs, including leak detection, water audits and reuse of wastewater. The City Council last year approved a Water Stewardship Program as an initial step.
Rachael Paschal Osborn, director of the Columbia Institute for Water Policy, a nonprofit organization that she founded two years ago, said higher charges for summer water use is probably the best way to encourage water conservation.
“I think it’s really time for the city to get serious,” she said.
The city also needs to provide incentives for installing water-saving devices, she said, as well as educational outreach programs.
Some communities emphasize programs such as reusing so-called “gray water” from kitchen sinks, installing low-flow toilets and shower heads and even collecting rain water for outdoor use.
Hession said he is recommending the new rate structure because “we are trying to ensure people are smart about their water use.”
Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene have both implemented water conservation programs. Post Falls residents are not supposed to water during the hottest parts of summer days, from noon to 6 p.m., when water is lost to evaporation. The ordinance carries a $300 fine, although the city has relied on voluntary compliance.
In Coeur d’Alene, people who purchase rain or soil moisture sensors or hose timers can receive a credit on their utility bills.
Idaho and Washington are currently involved in a bi-state aquifer study to determine the future capacity and uses of the resource, known to originate mainly from the mountains and lakes of North Idaho. It moves through porous soils of Spokane, Spokane Valley and the Rathdrum Prairie and is easily tapped by wells.