BPU tables tiered water rate ordinance

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Utilities> Board wants more time to consider issues raised by the public

By Arin McKenna

On Wednesday, the Los Alamos County Board of Public Utilities tabled an ordinance to revise the water rates structure that has been months in the making.
The ordinance restructures rates into a tiered system designed to allocate the cost of providing water more equitably.
One element of the plan calls for stepped rates based on meter size, up to $439.50 for an eight-inch meter, which carries 80 times as much water as a one-inch meter.
The ordinance also calls for a three-tiered residential rate between May and September, the peak season for water usage. All residential customers will have a single rate during the non-peak season.
According to DPU officials, water consumption in Los Alamos more than doubles during the summer months, with the majority of the increased use attributable to outdoor watering. The increased demand requires additional costs for pumping and delivering water and puts additional wear and tear on infrastructure, accelerating the need for replacement.
“The intent is to properly align the costs of providing water to the users that use that water. The summer peak residential users use by far the largest amount of water,” said Deputy Utilities Manager for Finance and Administration Robert Westervelt.
“We made a determination what infrastructure is required to serve that summer peak load, and what does it cost to support that infrastructure and adjusted the rates so the people using that summer peak quantity are paying a higher rate for that summer peak load.
“It is not intended to be a conservation rate or a punitive rate; it’s just intended to allocate the costs appropriately to the people who are creating the costs.”
The ordinance also includes a $1 conservation fee per household.
Westervelt proposed two changes to the ordinance.
One was to charge the same fee for both 5/8-inch and one-inch residential meters. The original proposal increased the charge for one-inch meters by $3.15. Further research showed the load on the system was fairly equal for both sizes.
The other suggestion was that higher rates for the residential tiers should apply only to usage within a tier level, not to the customer’s entire consumption.
Under that change, everyone would pay $4.19 per 1,000 gallons for first 7,000 gallons, $4.25 per 1,000 gallons for the next 8,000 and $4.61 per 1,000 gallons for anything above 15,000 gallons. Winter rates would be $3.99 per 1,000 gallons for all residential users.
According to figures provided by DPU, the actual cost to consumers would not be onerous.
The average first-tier residence will see an increase of approximately $8.56 per year due to the $1 conservation fee offset by lower commodity charges in the offseason.
Third-tier users at approximately 15,000 gallons would see an increase of $104 a year.
The first-tier rate also has a cushion built into it for larger families. The average family uses 5,000 gallons a year, and the first-tier allows for up to 7,000 gallons.
Westervelt noted that very large families would probably fall in the second tier, which is only .06 cents higher per 1,000 gallons than the first tier, for usage between 7,000 and 15,000 gallons.
DPU also plans to use funds from the $1 conservation fee to educate customers about techniques they can use to conserve water and still have the lawns and gardens they enjoy.
Chair David Powell sees that as a very important component of the plan, noting how he himself discovered he was using twice the water necessary for his lawn and trees.
“So I think that the education can have a real value to help the ratepayers use the water resource more cost effectively,” Powell said. “And the benefit there will be that their costs will go down and our total water consumption hopefully will go down.”
In reaction to public comment, board members asked staff to compare summer usage between Los Alamos and White Rock to determine if White Rock rates should be offset due to the drier climate.
DPU Manager John Arrowsmith argued against the proposal.
“I think if you look at the consumption in the wintertime, it’s probably the same per household on the Hill and in White Rock. So the difference is irrigation. And we’re talking about what does it cost to put in the infrastructure to provide for this irrigation.
“So if you live in a dry area, it seems obvious that it’s going to cost more to irrigate…Should gas rates be lower because it’s colder on the Hill? Why would those tiers be different if we’re trying to offset the cost of infrastructure to irrigate?”
The board requested more time to consider issues raised by the public. Powell directed staff to return with information addressing those issues, including a comparison of usage in White Rock and Los Alamos.