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BPU split on water rate

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County > Non-potable water plan gets green light

By Arin McKenna

When the Department of Public Utilities was developing its conservation plan, it conducted public hearings and online surveys. One question asked was what types of water saving measures would the public support.

A tiered water rate received the highest response. DPU has been working on a proposal to implement such a rate.

On Wednesday, Los Alamos Deputy Utilities Manager for Finance and Administration Robert Westervelt presented the Board of Public Utilities with options for a tiered water rate, a seasonal water rate and one that incorporated both. The proposal received a lukewarm reception.

Historically, the water rate has consisted of a service charge broken down by water meter size and a water consumption charge. The same rate was charged for all classes (residential, commercial, multi-family, education, county).

One element of the proposal would base fixed rates on meter size, which provides a good measure as to who is using the water. A two-inch meter runs eight times as much water as a one-inch meter.

“We wanted to make the fixed charge for the service at least relational with the size of the meter,” Westervelt said. “An eight-inch meter carries 80 times as much water as a one-inch meter, but the fixed charge isn’t nearly as high as it should be.”

Rather than proposing huge rate hikes on those with larger meters, staff proposed three more gradual adjustments that would bring rates into a more equitable relationship with usage.

The lab is on a wholesale rate and would not be affected by the proposed changes.

Another suggestion was to charge higher rates for customers consuming more than 25,000 gallons a year.

Westervelt reported that the typical water user consumes 6,000 to 7,000 gallons a year, but that 20,000 gallons is not unusual.

A study of consumption also revealed that half the county’s water usage occurs between June and September, with the remaining half consumed over an eight month span. One rate design would charge higher rates for high water usage during the summer months, impacting customers who maintain a large lawn.

“We’ve heard a lot of feedback that people want to keep the community green,” Westervelt said. “We didn’t want to make it so burdensome that it would become a rock community, but we did want to make it so people who want to have the lawns would be a little more responsible for the cost of doing so.”

Westervelt himself said that he maintains a large lawn.

Chair David Powell asked if there was a way to gauge how much conservation would be achieved with different water rates. Westervelt said there are statistics available, but none specific to Los Alamos.

The major concern about tiered rates was that residents would cut usage to the point that the infrastructure could not be maintained.

“We need to build a system that is capable of handling peak demand,” Westervelt said. “That peak demand may occur during a certain part of the year, but you can’t change pipes seasonally. We wanted to do something that recognized that it does cost more to be able to provide that kind of water without being overly punitive.”

“If we go to some type of a different rate, we don’t want to be surprised at the reduction in water usage that occurs to the extent that we don’t have a sustainable water system,” Powell agreed. “We want to be sure that we’re covering the fixed costs associated with providing that water.”

Powell suggested a system similar to Austin, Texas, with a fixed charge based on the size of the meters and the peak usage month determining the variable rate for the entire year.

“If we’re actually interested in influencing people’s behavior, we have to send a strong signal,” Powell said.

“I’m not interested in influencing people’s behavior to the extent I hear,” Vice Chair Timothy Neal said. Neal was against the objective of using rates to encourage people to conserve since the county currently uses well below its ground water allotment and hydrologists believe the aquifer is recharging at a greater rate than the water is being consumed.

“I think the objective is to have a beautiful green town, with people being rational in their use and cautious in their use,” Neal said. Neal felt that the staff proposal represented a good compromise.

BPU member Kevin Anderson argued passionately for conservation.

“We need to think about the future generations and not be selfish about water usage,” Anderson, said. “First and foremost, be able to maintain the infrastructure. But beyond that, peoples’ behavior needs to be adjusted so they’re looking towards our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

“Climate change is real, whether you believe in it or not, and we need to prepare for it. I’ve heard we can expect anywhere from 20- to 50-percent reduction in precipitation here in New Mexico, depending on where you live. And how is that going to impact 100 years down the road or 1,000 years down the road?

“My attitude is, this is our last and most precious resource, and we should use it wisely for the future.”

When Westervelt asked for clear direction, Powell responded, “I think an appropriate charge based upon meter size is certainly worth exploring, just from a business standpoint. But beyond that, the board is not of one mind, and I think you will need to convince us that a tiered rate is something that we really need.”

Councilor David Izraelevitz, speaking as a private citizen, made the observation that reducing water usage was a larger issue, and suggested using incentives and education to change behavior while maintaining the county’s aesthetic values.

Westervelt said staff would reassess the proposal based on council feedback and explore some of the options suggested before returning to council with a revised plan.

Staff also returned with a proposal for building a non-potable water system which incorporated the board’s feedback from the last meeting. The new proposal won board approval by a 4–0 vote. The master plan comes before council for approval on Aug. 27 (7 p.m., council chambers).