It’s hard to forget the water wars of 2011 – the mayoral water wars that is. Anonymous billboards went up around town questioning why – with 10 trillion gallons of water in the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer – the City of Spokane would raise water rates to induce conservation. A mayor and a city council member lost their seats, due in part to this highly misleading message.
Abundant groundwater notwithstanding, Mother Nature, combined with a City revenue structure that incentivizes water sales, have created a one-two punch for Spokane’s “most precious resource.” The Spokane River is flowing at near-record lows. It doesn’t have to be this way . . . but somebody in the City of Spokane needs to speak up.
The Spokane River is directly fed by the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer, so groundwater pumping by all of the municipalities in this region is causing extreme low flows. For the last few days, the River has been dropping into the 550 cfs range. That’s 300 cfs below the minimum flow that the Department of Ecology adopted last February, and less than half of what the flow has been this time of year for the last few years (and a third of what it was historically). The lowest flow on record is around 450 cfs, and it seems possible that a new record may be in the offing if people don’t put the brakes on their water usage.
As the City’s Water System Plan states (and common sense tells us), summer is the season of high water use. From October to April, monthly water demand averages 31 to 44 million gallons per day (mgd). May through September, the average jumps to between 64 and 114 mgd. But this year, 2015, July usage was a whopping 123 mgd. No wonder the Spokane River is suffering.
The City of Spokane has failed the Spokane River by stepping back from reasonable water conservation planning and implementation.
Water rates. A “conservation rate structure” is the most effective way to get water customers to pay attention to and cut back on their water use. The pocket book speaks. The basic idea – the more you use the higher your rate – creates an incentive to drop your water usage into a lower/cheaper tier. But Spokane’s rates make very minor distinctions for higher usage – and are ineffective in encouraging Spokane citizens to turn the outdoor spigot and sprinklers down (or off).
For example, Spokane residential customers can use “6 units” of water (about 4,500 gallons) for 28 cents/unit or $1.71. The next “4 units” (about 3,000) gallons costs 60 cents/unit or a total of $2.41. The next jump is to 81 cents per unit. A household can use 15,000 gallons per month (500 gallons per day) – a large amount – for just $12 per month. These are not conservation-inducing water rates.
- Conservation Goals. Washington law requires water purveyors to adopt water conservation goals. The City’s goal is to reduce water usage by 2% each year. It is a modest goal, but the City can’t seem to meet it (in part because the City’s water rates are so low). In 2014, the City’s summer season water usage actually exceeded the conservation goal by 13% (goal was 8.5 billion gallons, actual use was 9.6 billion gallons). According to the City’s 2014 Drinking Water Report, the reason the City did not meet its goals was usage by commercial/industrial users. Clearly, this is an area where higher water rates could have a meaningful impact.
- Water Leakage. The City is losing a lot of water out of its “World Water II era” water mains. The Drinking Water Report cites 17.8% leakage in 2014. The state’s water efficiency law, adopted in 2003, requires a cities to control water leakage to a rate of 10% or less. Twelve years and counting, many wonder when Spokane will get around to compliance.
- Water Billing Practices. If you are a Spokane utility customer you get a bill every month. And it tells you how much water you’ve used. But the City only checks your meter every 60 days or so. So, by the time you get a bill with actual data, it is really too late to save much water. (Hint: read your own meter to monitor your usage and set personal conservation goals.)
City Conservation Plan. The City, by law, must adopt a water conservation plan every six years. The latest plan, a December 2014 draft, identifies 19 measures (table at right). These include water audits, low flow appliance rebates, education, and etc. Some measures are not being implemented and some don’t even make sense.
Clearly, with record usage this year, these measures are not working, and as mentioned, the City’s water rate system is not effective. The City’s “Slow the Flow” campaign is virtually invisible. (And really, does anyone change their water habits based on a 3×8 inch insert in their utility bill?)
Non-profit groups Sierra Club Upper Columbia River Group and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy have taken leadership to encourage residents of Spokane to cut their water usage. The H2KNOW campaign has billboards up and is getting media coverage. Visit the H2KNOW.info website and Facebook page and see if you can translate a few tips on water reduction into your daily life.