Water rates have surged in the past dozen years, according to a USA TODAY study of 100 municipalities. Prices at least doubled in more than a quarter of the locations and even tripled in a few. USA TODAY's study of residential water rates over the past 12 years for large and small water agencies nationwide found that monthly costs doubled for more in 29 localities. The unique look at costs for a diverse mix of water suppliers representing every state and Washington, D.C. found that a resource long taken for granted will continue to become more costly for millions of Americans. Rates haven't crested yet because huge costs to upgrade or repair pipes, reservoirs and treatment plants loom nationwide.
In three municipalities — Atlanta, San Francisco and Wilmington, Del. — water costs tripled or more. Monthly costs topped $50 for consumers in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego who used 1,000 cubic feet of water, a typical residential consumption level in many areas. Officials in the three municipalities and elsewhere, however, say actual consumption is often lower. But conservation efforts counter-intuitively may raise water rates in some localities.
The trend toward higher bills is being driven by:
-- The cost of paying off the debt on bonds municipalities issue to fund expensive repairs or upgrades on aging water systems.
-- Increases in the cost of electricity, chemicals and fuel used to supply and treat water. -- Compliance with federal government clean-water mandates.
-- Rising pension and health care costs for water agency workers.
-- Increased security safeguards for water systems since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Higher rates still ahead The costs continue to rise even though residential water usage dropped sharply nationwide in the past three decades amid conservation efforts. U.S. water systems will need as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements by 2035 to keep up with drinking water needs, according to a survey of industry experts released in June. The bond debt needed to fund those projects' work will be passed on to consumers, including the many Americans struggling with the economic fallout of the great recession.
Efforts to compare water costs of any given area with another produce misleading or even false results, because of differences in population, geography, geology, bonding debt for infrastructure work and other variables. However, what most water agencies across the nation share is increasing costs that make higher bills all but inevitable.
The monthly cost of 1,000 cubic feet of water in Philadelphia have jumped 164%, to $39.22, since 2001. In Baltimore, where water costs are up 140% since 2001, the public works agency in the last decade completed a $65 million upgrade of the water system's Ashburton Filtration Plant. After a series of major water main breaks in 2009, the city made plans to speed the pace of pipe cleaning, relining and rehabilitation work to 40 miles per year, a five-fold increase. The cost? About $300 million over five years. At the same time, Baltimore, like water systems nationwide, was forced to implement costly security upgrades at its facilities. "It's not the world of 1990. It's the post-9/11 security world we have to deal with. In San Francisco, the monthly cost of 1,000 cubic feet of water jumped nearly 211% since 2001 as the city's regional water system ended a seven-year rate freeze and began a massive, five-year infrastructure improvement program.
U.S. homeowners who reduce their water consumption in an effort to save money can cut their costs. But they may end up raising the rates they're charged. Why? Because water suppliers collect less income as consumption drops, but ongoing costs -- such as bonding debt, salaries and chemicals -- either increase or, at best, remain stable. (USA TODAY, 9/29/2012)