Water Bill Blues

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It is estimated that over 50% of residential water in California is used outdoors. With water rates rising quickly I decided to take a look at my bills to see how much they have risen, and how much I could save by converting more of my landscaped yard to water-conserving California native plants.The answer, however, is not simple. The water bill is composed of several parts. One piece is a fixed amount based on the size of the water meter. The second piece – which is significantly smaller for us – is based on units of water used. During some years there have been other water charges such as a capital improvement surcharge, once again a fixed amount not based on usage. I calculated an actual cost per unit by adding together all water related charges on my bill (not including sewer, wastewater or garbage) and dividing by units (748 gallons) used. Because most of our water bill comes from fixed fees, the actual cost per unit of water – including all water charges – decreases as use increases.Recently our city implemented a tiered or block billing system. The cost per unit of water in the second tier is nearly double that of the first, while the third tier is 60% higher than the second. The goal of this type of billing is to charge heavy users for their excess, thereby encouraging water conservation, while still providing affordable water for basic needs.

We do not exceed the first tier so the actual cost per unit is still most affected by the fixed fees. In fact, the fixed piece in our water bill currently is 81% of the water charges, meaning that while conserving water may be a good thing to do, it will save us little money.

Nevertheless, the cost of water has gone up. The average actual cost per unit during the period from September 2007 to September 2008 was under $5, while this year it is averaging more than double that amount. Although I wish that we could reduce our increasing water bill further with more landscape efficiencies, I know that with 81% of our bill unaffected by usage, the savings will be meager. Still, water is precious and so we will continue to replace water-intensive lawn with low-water use native plants.

My side garden (left) in August 2002 before change over to water-conserving woodland garden (right, May 2008).
November 16, 2012

For those with large expanses of lawn, the tiered billing system has had a greater financial impact. As intended, it provides incentive to conserve while insuring that basic water needs are affordable. Regardless of how our water bills are computed in the future, the cost of providing clean drinking water is growing and these costs will be passed on to the consumer.

If you have the water bill blues, replace water-guzzling lawns with water-conserving native plants. You can get beautiful native plants at the Into the Garden Native Plant Sale run each year by the San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. This year the sale is being held on Saturday, November 9th from 9 AM to 2 PM at Eaton Canyon Nature Center. In addition to a wonderful selection of tried-and-true native plants, friendly and knowledgeable volunteers will be available to help you select the perfect plants for your garden. Fight the water bill blues – grow native!

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2012 Native Plant Sale (CNPS – San Gabriel Mts. Chapter) at Eaton Canyon Nature Center

Ryan Cahill, A.M.ASCE1; and Jay Lund, M.ASCE2. Residential Water Conservation in Australia and California. JOURNAL OF WATER RESOURCES PLANNING AND MANAGEMENT © ASCE / JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2013 / 121. J. Water Resour. Plann. Manage. 2013.139:117-121.
https://watershed.ucdavis.edu/files/biblio/conservation_jrl_.pdf (2013)

Ellen Hanak and Matthew Davis. Lawns and Water Demand in California. Public Policy Insitute of California. Vol. 2, No. 2, July 2006.
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/cep/EP_706EHEP.pdf (2013)

Juliet Christian-Smith, Matthew Heberger, Lucy Allen. Urban Water Demand in California to 2100: Incorporating Climate Change. August 2012. Pacific Institute.
http://www.pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/full_report38.pdf (2013)

California Water Blog. UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.  http://californiawaterblog.com (2013)

4 thoughts on “Water Bill Blues

  1. Very good points, Barbara. <br /><br />As a garden designer promoting sustainable landscapes and the use of native plants, I receive requests to help people save money on their water bills. While certainly we can cut back water usage and sometimes even reduce bills, is there a net financial savings? Certainly not right away, and perhaps never, depending on how water purveyors charge now vs. in

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  3. I have gotten a lot of email comments to this post which I also uploaded to our local online Patch newspaper. I am cutting and pasting all comments to Patch since that is a more heavily used local forum. Unfortunately you have to register to leave a comment on Patch so I am just posting them under my own name. <br /><br />http://southpasadena.patch.com/groups/barbara-eisenstein-contributors-blog/

  4. MSW

    Las Virgenes Municipal Water District did a real time study and found that in the Santa Monica Mountains, seventy percent of imported water goes to outdoor water use. <br /><br />Fifty percent is the accepted number for urban use in Los Angeles.<br /><br />Thank you for addressing this issue.

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