In the summer and fall of 2011, Spokane City Hall phone lines were crammed with angry water customers.
But that changed this summer and fall under new water rates installed by Mayor David Condon and the City Council just in time for summer watering.
“The complaints and calls we got this year were almost nonexistent,” said Rick Romero, Spokane’s utilities director.
Starting in 2011, the city charged water rates that lowered bills for those who used less water and increased bills, sometimes substantially, for those who used more.
After the outcry, the city re-adopted rates in May based on the system in place before the change. Those rates still encourage conservation by charging more per gallon the more a customer uses, but not at such a dramatic scale.
The controversial shift in 2011 was sparked by a desire to lower rates for the poor, who were assumed to use less water, and to conserve water. While scientists say there’s no hint that Spokane’s aquifer is falling, there are signs that the city’s thirst for water has lowered the level of the Spokane River in late summer, which could hurt fish.
“Water pumped from the aquifer is water that is intercepted and would otherwise go to the river,” said Guy Gregory, senior hydrologist at the Department of Ecology.
So far, Spokane customers have used about 15 billion gallons of water this year, almost 7 percent more water than they used at the same time last year.
City officials say that increase may be more than just a factor of the cheaper cost to use more. Hotter weather and a long period without rain also likely encouraged homeowners to keep their sprinklers on longer.
While the increased use may be a concern to conservationists, it was good for city revenue. Romero had forecast a decline of nearly $2 million because of the new rates. The greater-than-expected use has nearly erased that deficit, Romero said.
Councilman Mike Fagan said he expected an even bigger increase in usage.
“I would have hoped that they would have gotten a little more comfortable in their use,” Fagan said. “There’s nothing wrong with taking some pride in homeownership.”
But environmentalists say the city should not abandon efforts to conserve.
With the outcry at water rates, the city should consider other programs, including creating incentives aimed at encouraging homeowners to install landscaping that needs less watering, said Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council.
“The long-term solution may be more than water rates,” he said.
The current structure is based on reverting to the rates in place in 2010, adjusting for inflation and adding an extra dollar to the base rate.
A monthly water bill for 5,000 gallons, about the average monthly winter bill or bill for customers who don’t water lawns, decreased by about 6 percent.
A bill for 27,000 gallons, the average amount used monthly in the summer, fell by about 30 percent.
Heavier users saw bigger reductions. A customer who used 100,000 gallons in a month, for instance, paid half as much as they did in 2011.
Spokane City Councilman Steve Salvatori said the current rates, which have a higher base rate that’s paid by all residential customers, helps keep a consistent revenue flow to the Water Department in years when usage falls.
“It’s a more durable and sustainable way to price our water,” Salvatori said.
This fall, the City Council approved a 3.5 percent water rate increase for 2013. That’s substantially less than had been forecast last year. Condon has pledged to keep increases at or below inflation. He’s directed utility managers to set budgets based on rates the public can afford rather than expected costs of large construction projects. The change means the city likely will begin to borrow for the cost of some major utility upgrades.
“It’s an affordability philosophy,” Condon said.
Councilman Jon Snyder, who had supported the 2011 change as well as the revision approved in May, said he believes the council should create a utility commission to help set rates and answer questions like: “Are we forcing too much cost on future generations?”
“We replaced one ideology with another,” Snyder said.