Published: May 25, 2008 09:24 AM
Modified: May 25, 2008 09:24 AM
The cost of conservation
Conservation, most of us understand, is a good thing. Resources are finite, and in an increasingly crowded and overstressed world, we're wise to minimize our consumption of just about everything. Save, reuse, recycle. Conserve.That was especially important during the recent drought. As the long dry spell wore on, the water levels in our reservoirs plummeted. Orange Water and Sewer Authority and local governments imposed water use restrictions and asked consumers to conserve even beyond the mandatory limits.Consumers did just that. They cut their use dramatically; in recent weeks demand has been a full 25 percent lower than normal. Customers' conservation bought the reservoirs precious time until, thankfully, the rains finally came. Great job, everybody. But there's a downside. Decreased consumption means decreased revenues. To compensate, OWASA says it will have to raise its rates -- a lot. The figure on the table is a shade under 25 percent, although that figure is not final. The final decision won't be made until after a June 12 public hearing.But whatever the precise figure winds up to be, we're almost certainly looking at a big jump in the per-gallon price of water. As you might expect, some customers are upset about that, to put it mildly. They feel as though they're being punished for doing their civic duty and conserving. In fact, though, OWASA has little choice but to raise rates, at least to some degree. It's facing what Executive Director Ed Kerwin calls "a perfect storm" of factors. Drought-spurred conservation has brought revenues down. The lousy economy and stalled housing market has led to a 40 percent drop in new connection fees, meaning a further reduction in revenues. Soaring fuel prices have jacked up the cost of everything. So expenses are rising and revenues are falling. You might think that decreased demand would result in decreased operating costs. It does, but not by much; most of OWASA's costs are fixed. And OWASA, as a nonprofit public service, doesn't have many revenue-generating options at its disposal.In short, OWASA is in a very tough spot. But a 25-percent hike in a single year would be a huge leap. Some customers will have real trouble covering that. OWASA must continue to look for ways to scale it back or spread it out. It's time to get creative. It's also a good time to remind folks that OWASA and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service partner on a project called Taste of Hope. Those who sign up have their monthly water bills rounded up to the next dollar, and the difference goes into a fund administered by IFC to help low-income residents pay their water bills. For most customers, even a 25 percent rate hike shouldn't mean a 25 percent increase in the total bill, because most people have reduced their consumption. You'll pay more per gallon, but you're using fewer gallons. Higher prices, of course, are an incentive to conserve even more. It used to be easy to think of water as ubiquitous and essentially free, like air; remember how ridiculous it seemed when people started paying for bottled water? But times have changed, and we've learned just how valuable water really is.
If you have a comment on today's editorial, please contact Dave Hart, associate editor, at 932-8744 or email@example.com.
2008 The Chapel Hill News