September 8, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Tiered rates help city wrestle with water goals


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Proposed water rate increases in Spokane face a wave of criticism, but the reality is that rates are higher in most other Northwest cities, and the city’s conservation strategy fits well with climate change and population projections.

The City Council is debating the best way to raise more revenue for overdue infrastructure projects. Most members agree that additional money is needed. But once the rates and/or fees are adjusted, the onus will be on city leaders to spend the new revenue on those improvements, rather than siphoning off large sums for workers’ salary and benefit increases. The public won’t tolerate higher rates with little to show for it.

The proposed rate changes are fairly substantial, but that’s because the city decided to forgo increases in five of the past eight years. As a result, needed projects were put on hold. Even so, most residents would still pay less than they would in similarly sized cities, such as Tacoma and Boise.

The rate changes will be considered at Monday’s council meeting.

The city took another significant step in January when it switched over to a tiered pricing system that rewarded lower water usage. The change reduced water bills for many residents.

Nonetheless, the new rate structure has been assailed as social engineering by critics such as mayoral candidate David Condon. But conservation ought to be considered in the larger context of river health and climate change.

While the region currently has an abundant water supply, the interplay between the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer and the Spokane River cannot be overlooked. Agricultural, industrial and residential water use can lower the level of the river because it is fed, in part, by the aquifer. Overuse impedes efforts to sustain and improve the river’s health.

As Department of Ecology hydrologist John Covert says, “It’s not the aquifer that’s in trouble. It’s the Spokane River.”

In addition, long-term climate change projections show that the entire West, including the Columbia Basin, will face water supply problems. The eight major river basins in the West are projected to see an increase in temperature of 5 to 7 degrees by the end of the century.

Down south, it will simply be hotter and drier. Here in the North, it might get wetter, but the snowpack will dwindle as rain replaces snow at higher elevations. This poses significant water storage challenges.

The city’s graduated cost structure fits nicely with this long-term outlook. As power companies know, setting higher rates for heavy users is an effective conservation strategy that helps head off the need to build expensive new generating plants. Similarly, water conservation eases the strain on the existing delivery system.

While council members continue to haggle over the details of the price increase, the good news is that most of them can see the bigger picture and appear ready to act accordingly.

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