California Handing Water Wasters The Bill

Recent rainy weather notwithstanding, California is still reeling from the effects of a long-term drought and mandated water conservation. Many water districts are hiking up rates for water use. In southern California, one water district has come up with a system that rewards conservation and penalizes water waste. The system is a model for other water districts around the state and, increasingly, around the country.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Heavy rain has soaked many areas in California this winter, but the precipitation hasn't alleviated the state's long-term drought. Many districts still have federally mandated water cutbacks so they've raised rates and are trying to create incentives for better water conservation. Reporter Jennifer Bauman visited one water district in Southern California to check out a billing system that encourages people to use less water and penalizes them for wasting it.

Mr. PETER BRETZKER(ph): This is getting to be a bit much.

JENNIFER BAUMAN: Irvine homeowner Peter Bretzker is like most of us, paying his water bill without much question. Then one month he got a big shock - a bill that suddenly more than doubled. The Irvine Ranch Water District charged Bretzker eight times more than his base rate for the portion of his water use labeled wasteful.

Mr. BRETZKER: I mean, you can see it in the bill you guys sent us, which is really good. It's scary.

BAUMAN: So, Bretzker was motivated to get some free help.

Ms. NATALIE PAVLOVSKI (Water Conservation Analyst): I'm with the conservation department, so I'll be conducting the audit.

BAUMAN: Water conservation analyst Natalie Pavlovski is examining Bretzker's upscale home to check for any potential leaks. The first stop is the toilet in the downstairs bathroom where she drops a blue dye tablet into the holding tank.

Ms. PAVLOVSKI: If there's any leaks, this water will leak into the bowl and that water will turn blue.

BAUMAN: Turns out, two of Bretzker's three toilets have minor leaks. But that's not enough to explain the recent wasteful water use. So the next stop is the timer for the outdoor sprinklers.

Ms. PAVLOVSKI: So it's seven minutes for the first station. Ten minutes for the second station. These are all very high.

BAUMAN: During the drought of the early '90s, the Irvine Ranch Water District abandoned one-size-fits-all flat-rate pricing and started using a system based not just on how much water you use, but on how much you ought to use. Conservation Manager Fiona Sanchez describes it as allocation based billing designed to discourage waste.

Ms. FIONA SANCHEZ (Conservation Manager, Irvine Ranch Water District): And what it does is it rewards conservation with very low rates, but if you use more than your allocation, then you will get a very strong financial signal to tell you that you need to conserve.

BAUMAN: Each customer's water allocation is based on the number of residents, lot size and climate. Users who exceed their customized allocation face three levels of penalty charges for inefficient, excessive or wasteful water use. A wasteful water user will see their base rate jump from just over a dollar to more than $9 per 100 cubic feet.

Ms. SANCHEZ: Well, we were - shocking bill - but the good news is that when they call in when they get the shock, we're able to really help them.

Ms. PAVLOVSKI: Okay. So, we found a few more things.

BAUMAN: Pavlovski conducts two or three residential audits a day.

Ms. PAVLOVSKI: And then I'll leave you with this packet. It's our conservation information. There's a key to tighten sprinklers.

BAUMAN: Since the system's been I place, personal water consumption in the district has been reduced by 40 percent and landscaping water use by 60 percent.

Drew Beckwith, water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, says these kinds of penalties are a powerful tool for water districts to push people to conserve.

Mr. DREW BECKWITH (Water Policy Analyst, Western Resource Advocates): From our perspective, it's certainly one of the number one things that they should be looking at.

BAUMAN: Despite higher startup cost, allocation-based billing systems are expanding throughout the West and even gaining favor in some drought-parched states in the Southeast.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Bauman.

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