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April 2011 Archives

Water Rates

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One of my good friends, Pete Garcia, always complains about Santa Fe water rates. "We have the highest water rates in the country," he says. Well, Pete, I hate to say it, but that is just about correct.  Our base water rates aren't the highest in the country, but as our tiered and summer water rates schedule kicks in, we do have some of the highest rates. Yet compared to other cities in the world, our water is still downright cheap. 

In almost any place in the United States, we simply turn on the faucet and it flows. This amazing infrastructure was built over the last century and has supplied us cheap, plentiful water for decades. Abundant water, cheap electricity and a great road system have been the backbone of our economy over the last century. However, access to cheap, plentiful water is becoming a thing of the past, not only in the Santa Fe area, but around the country and the world. 

In the United States, we are fortunate to have accessible clean water at any price. Over 46% of the earth's population doesn't, and people in developing countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to get access to water. One in eight people on the planet lack access to clean water. 

Access to an additional water source has been the main driver for Santa Fe's multi-year water rate increase (i.e., 8.2% annual increase from 2009 - 2014).  Our local Buckman Direct Diversion (BDD) project is estimated to cost more than $200 million and will provide both the city and county access to 5,605 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama Project water per year (an acre-foot is approximately 325,851.4 gallons).

This water is more expensive than water pumped out of the ground or piped in from local reservoirs. But even this source will not provide us with all the water we will need in the future. We live in a high desert, arid region and simply do not have enough drinking water to meet our growing needs. Per the City of Santa Fe Water Conservation and Drought Management Report, we are over-pumping the groundwater wells resulting in damage to the underground aquifer. Even in the best of years, the Santa Fe River reservoirs can only supply about half of the water our region needs. In very dry years, they cannot supply much water at all and emergency water restrictions have had to be put in place.

Due to projects like this, in which water is accessed from further away or it is of lesser quality and requires more processing, , water rates are rising here and around the world.  Most cities are now facing similar challenges. 

For example, the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, which has historically enjoyed cheap water, faces the possibility that Lake Mead, the city's prime water source, will run dry in 13 years if usage is not cut back. The city's water agency, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has undertaken a $700 million project to dig a bigger pipe into the lake. Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the agency, said they are concerned that the city is relying almost entirely on Lake Mead for its water, and officials were seeking alternate sources. Las Vegas is turning to rural counties to the north to quench a thirst that the nation's largest man-made reservoir can't sustain. Plans include drilling wells and building a $1-billion pipeline to tap rivers and groundwater from neighboring rural counties. This will not be cheap water.

Comparing data in the recently released Black & Veatch 2009/2010 Water/Wastewater Rate Survey, -Santa Fe has the fourth highest rates of the 200 hundred US cities included in the survey, behind San Diego, Seattle and Baltimore, in descending order. This comparison is looking at Santa Fe's rates for 3,500 gallons per month, not including sewer, connection charges, taxes or any other fees or summer usage rates.

However, at 15,000 gallons per month or more, Santa Fe has the highest rates of all the cities included in the survey. The City of Santa Fe's tiered rate structure of $15.81 per 1,000 gallons consumed makes our water cost almost twice as much as the nearest city: Austin, Texas.

For the cities included in the survey, the average cost of water from 2001-2009 has increased at a rate two times that of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). These rate increases are being driven by the increase in energy prices, increased demand, aging infrastructure, and the distance and water quality problems mentioned above.

In another study, the Global Water Intelligence (GWI) published a survey of water rates in 261 cities worldwide. In that survey, Santa Fe is not even close to the top, in fact, US water appears downright cheap compared to other cities in the world. The lovely cities of Copenhagen and Aarthus, both in Denmark, the price of water is more than $20.00 per 1,000 gallons versus $5.81 in Santa Fe [you said $15.81 two paragraphs up]. Other cities that are by far more expensive are Paris, France; Gent Belgium and Stuttgart, Germany -- all over $10.00 per 1,000 gallons. It is worth noting that more than a few international cities provide water free or nearly free and these cities are some of the largest water consumers.  

In Santa Fe, we are blessed to have had a drought that forced our hand to become much more focused on water conservation, to raise our water rates, and to create a tiered rate system to motivate the biggest water consumers to cut back. These forward-thinking measures are why we have enough water today, and we should thank our city staff for this. Our city is now one of the lowest water use cities in the United States. But even with all these efforts, expect water rates to continue rising. 

To avoid the highest water rates, conserve water to keep your water usage below 7,000 per month from September to April and 10,000 per month from May through August.  Water is not just a life-giving resource, it is also an economic engine. There is simply no more plentiful "cheap" water; consequently, water conservation will remain key to sustaining the beautiful area we live in.