SUNDAY, OCT. 15, 2006

Our View: Higher rates for above-average use the right move

Phoenix residents know that when their city dwells in a prolonged drought, homeowners face strict water rationing measures. For instance, they can’t hose down their driveways, and vegetable-garden watering is only allowed in the evening hours.

Phoenix, a city with 300 days of sunshine and an average of only 8 inches of precipitation a year, has disciplined itself into the habit of conserving water, drought or no drought.

This same kind of water discipline isn’t evident yet in the Inland Northwest, because water seems so abundant. It rains in the fall and spring, and snow falls in the winter. Also, the magnificent Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie aquifer is the source of an average 146 million gallons of fresh water each day.

But as the Inland Northwest’s popularity increases, so does the demand for fresh water.

The long-term health of the aquifer depends on vigilant monitoring and conservation of water. Conservation, however, can be a hard habit to learn, especially if the urgency is not obvious.

Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession has proposed, and Spokane city officials are considering, charging higher rates for residents who use more water than others. This is a problem now only in the summer, when people water their lawns and gardens, fill swimming pools and wash their cars in their driveways. The extra charge, the thinking goes, will literally bring home to residents the need to conserve water.

City residents are billed by “units of water” used. An average household should be able to meet all its summer water needs with 45 units – about 33,750 gallons – of water a month, according to Brad Blegen, director of Spokane’s water department. Residents are charged 66 cents a unit, which comes to $29.70 a month (actual water bills are higher because residents are billed for two months’ worth of water).

About 30 percent of homeowners use more than 45 units of water in July and August, the two heaviest water-use months, Blegen said. Say that some of those households use 20 additional units – 15,000 gallons – of water. Those 20 “extra” units would cost 85 cents each, rather than 66 cents. So those bills would work out to $46.70 a month – $17 more than the norm.

This increased-charge proposal would raise awareness about conservation in a tangible way – through people’s pocketbooks.

The proposal also allows for personal choice and responsibility. A homeowner might decide the extra water is needed and worth the price. For others, the higher bills would lead to the habit of water conservation. And this habit, done collectively, contributes to the vitality of the region’s irreplaceable aquifer.

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