Friday, September 28, 2012

USA Today - Water Rate Study

This week USA Today posted a story about rising water rates throughout the US.  The increases (on a percentage basis) are very large in some cities.  It would also be interesting to see what those changes were on an absolute basis - if your water bill is $20 to start with then raising it to $40 is a 100% increase, but still a pretty small price to pay for having water come out of a pipe in your house whenever you want it.  This is a pretty gross generalization, but it looks to me like the systems with the largest cost increases are concentrated in older eastern cities where they have probably been hit with large bills for major system upgrades to old water system infrastructure or in rapidly growing western cities that might be paying, or preparing to pay, for expensive new supplies to meet surging demands (I'm looking at you San Diego or possibly Atlanta on both counts).

The article does a pretty good job of describing the paradox of conservation with utilities - when you conserve the fixed costs of running the utility are spread over fewer units so the cost per unit increases.  This is especially prevalent in water utilities that often recover a significant portion of fixed costs with variable revenue sources.

I had a thought while reading the discussion of how many utilities are facing high costs from past borrowing to pay for infrastructure upgrades, system expansions, costs of compliance with new regulations, etc.  Did some of them possibly overestimate the revenue they would take in in future years when they had to payback those bonds, either by assuming continued expansion of their connections or that rates of household consumption would level off rather than declining?  I don't doubt that many of the upgrades that were done were necessary, but maybe they would have scheduled the work over a different time frame if they had more reasonable expectations for future revenue streams.  Or tried a bit harder to find ways to curb costs for the needed work.

Thanks to Val Little at WaterCASA for tipping me off to this story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Latest Installment in the Painted Hills Follies

Let's see if we can figure out what's wrong with this article.  In paragraph 4 it says:
The county approved development plans for the 284 acres of scenic Painted Hills property just west of the city limits, but the supervisors didn't want the site developed, so they asked the city to deny water service to the property.
So the county asks the city to save them from a bad decision - see the county voters approved bond funds that would enable the county to buy this parcel of land and preserve it as open space.  But when the owners wouldn't sell to the county, the county decided they could wait them out.  But somebody else came in and offered more money for the parcel, expecting to develop it.

The city instituted a new policy that was used to deny water for the development, but ran into other problems when the developer sought a different remedy.  They are currently in negotiations with the property owner to do a swap that will provide them with a develop-able parcel of land elsewhere and permit preservation of the Painted Hills parcel.  You can find info on the city's water policy referenced here and here.

But back to the current article.  At the end of the article are a couple of really nice comments from the County Administrator, Chuck Huckleberry:
Huckelberry wants the board to ask the city to change its water service policy to provide service to properties like Marrs'.
"The presently adopted Tucson Water policy does not support rational regional planning for water service," Huckelberry said in the memo.
Guess it really pays to stay on the good side of our county administrator.  If I can paraphrase something a former president said recently - it takes some real brass to encourage the city to use their new policy to prevent development in one location then come back and say that said policy prevents rational regional planning when it stands in the way of a particular development you do want to see go forward.  Is it any wonder people in this town have so little respect for our local governments?