Conserving water in the High Desert should be a no-brainer.
But the problem is, according to local conservationists, the city's water-billing strategy is severely flawed. Rather than rewarding conservation by charging for per-gallon use, ratepayers are charged a monthly flat fee—no matter how much (or little) they use. The result is that water conservers are subsidizing the rates for folks who water the heck out of their lawns in the summer.
"You as a ratepayer have no incentive to do the right thing and use less water," explained Mayor Jim Clinton. "So people trying to do the right thing and conserve are getting screwed."
Here's what getting screwed looks like: Last month, my partner and I used 331 cubic feet of water—a typical month in our one-bedroom home. The city, however, bills us $20 for a minimum block of 400 cubic feet of water. This means it wouldn't matter if we used zero cubic feet—we're still getting charged the same base rate. But our sewer bill is, comparatively, huge. Bend's flat sewer rate is always around $42. Add in a couple taxes and small fees and we're often looking at a $75 water/sewer bill, even in winter when, ostensibly, water usage drops.
That's because the city of Bend also charges a flat sewer fee rather than billing residents according to their impact on the sewer system. Even though sewer usage isn't metered, it is, according to Clinton, quantifiable. Sewer fees should be a reflection of water use, the mayor said—not a blanket rate, he said.
"You're using a couple hundred cubic feet per month and you're paying the same as a guy who's using 5,000 cubic feet—a guy in a 10,000-square-foot home with 14 showers and three hot tubs," Clinton said. "I'm for having all the rates reflect the actual cost of delivering, whether it's water, sewer or whatever—not have one group subsidizing another group. These water rates just aren't equitable."
San Diego, Clinton said, should serve as an example of how to bill for water use when water is a precious commodity.
"In San Diego, as far back as the early '80s, they looked at your water bill during low-use months and based your yearly sewer bill on winter-water usage," Clinton said. "Those months, then, determined your sewer bill."
City utility officials say they lack the data to charge sewer rates in an actual per-use manner. But the city is currently developing a plan to charge businesses an extra strength fee based on estimates of that business' sewer needs.
For instance, an accounting firm with two bathrooms would pay the smallest extra strength charge. A brewery, which has a tremendous impact in the form of liquids and solids, such as spent grains, would pay the highest rate.
Though not based on water usage, it's the first step toward linking sewer rates to something tangible.
Clinton said he's pushed the public works department to link residential water consumption to actual fees in much the same way, but so far his ideas have gained little traction.
It's not just Clinton.
Other advocates for smart water usage in the Deschutes Basin agree. A per-use charge just makes sense, said Deschutes River Conservancy Executive Director Tod Heisler.
"I think it is one of the many things that they [the city] can do," Heisler said.
Every month an individual's city of Bend utility bill will include a "minimum usage" charge. Depending on the water meter's size, that charge is nearly $20 and includes over 400 cubic feet of water. So the usage bill for 380 cubic feet is the same for zero cubic feet of water. If residents exceed the 400-cubic-foot mark, only then is a per-use charge applied. The city then bills an extra $1.55 per additional 100 cubic feet used.