Against the wishes of many residents, the city has pushed ahead with the idea of requiring every home to install a water meter at a cost of at least $1.3 million. The city has justified this expensive decision on the basis of three assumptions;
- Water meters are the most effective way to conserve water.
- Water meters will save money on current operations and future capital expenses.
- User pay is fairer to customers than a flat rate.
We believe none of these assumptions are correct.
1. Most people agree that even if Grand Forks has an abundant supply of fresh water for current and future needs, we use more than we need, and water conservation is important. But are water meters the best way to achieve a reduction in usage?
According to the Drought Management and Conservation Plan, prepared for Grand Forks by Dobson Engineering Ltd., water meters aren't very effective in reducing water use.
"In British Columbia the results have varied with an average 15 per cent saving in consumption."
And the Water Conservation Plan, prepared for the city in 2010 by Kerr Wood Leidal, Consulting Engineerst says,
"The potential savings that may be realized with the installation of water meters in combination with water conservation pricing is estimated to be between 6 per cent and 16 per cent of the total water usage."
Even assuming that residential consumption dropped by 20 per cent, this would only result in a total drop of 13 per cent, since residents consume 65 per cent of the total.
Much greater reductions could be achieved by simply enforcing current sprinkling restrictions. Sprinkling accounts for the greatest use of water by residents. In their Universal Water Metering Feasibility Assessment for Grand Forks in 2000, Urban Systems Engineering Ltd. stated,
"An effective sprinkling restriction program can result in a potential decrease in irrigation demand in the order of 50 per cent."
Urban Systems goes on to note that, "However, restrictions such as this (Grand Forks sprinkling restrictions) are only effective if adequate enforcement is provided. Anecdotal evidence suggests that enforcement of sprinkling restrictions in Grand Forks does not occur on a regular basis. Infrequent enforcement may perhaps be worse than no enforcement as water users view municipal tickets as arbitrary when they are issued. This raises questions of fairness in the process."
Urban Systems went on to describe public education programs that have been effectively used in other cities to raise awareness about the importance of conservation. They suggested hiring summer students who could provide information to homeowners and then notify those who don't follow the sprinkling schedules. Recent changes to city by-law enforcement would make issuing citations for repeat infractions much easier.
2. The City has argued that spending $1.3 million on water meters will bring down consumption to levels needed for fire protection and reduce high summer maximum daily demands. They say this would reduce operating costs and allow them to defer large infrastructure expenses such as new wells and reservoirs.
It would be more accurate to say that anything that brings down consumption to these levels will reduce operating costs and future infrastructure expenses. Since enforcing sprinkling restrictions, as shown above, is a more effective and less costly way of cutting demand, it makes more sense to try that first.
The city has also stated that lowering consumption will "Reduce the cost...to treat the used water at our wastewater treatment plant." Neither installing water meters nor enforcing sprinkling regulations will have any significant impact on the amount of sewage solids going to a treatment facility. You can, however, reduce the amount of water that is used to deliver the sewage if people switch to more efficient toilets, washing machines and shower heads, the three biggest users of indoor water. Programs that help people make these improvements have been very successful and don't require water meters. If we want to further reduce the amount of water we pump and reduce the amount of waste water going through the sewage treatment plant, it would make more sense to spend part of the $1.3 million helping people make these improvements.
3. The city and many residents assert that user pay is a fairer way to fund services than the current flat rate. This is a reasonable position, and many services such as natural gas and electricity are measured and billed on the basis of amount consumed.
Other services such as health care and education are not. There are many people who have paid school taxes all their lives, but have never had children in school. As a society, we have decided that education is important and the cost should be shared by everyone. The same is true of health care. If you haven't used the medical system, you still contribute to the cost of running it. And if your family experiences very high medical needs at some point, your rates aren't increased to penalize you for using the system.
In the end there is no right or wrong or perfect way to pay for the services we need. Communities make these decisions based on their values.
Nevertheless, if most of us agree that it is important to reduce water usage and we recognize people's concerns about fairness, there may be a way forward that can come closer to meeting these goals than the current plan.
Urban Systems reported in their study that the Greater Vancouver Regional District considered installing residential meters and decided it didn't make financial sense. Despite this decision, as Grand Forks has noted on their website, Richmond, which is in the GVRD, chose to give residents the choice of installing meters. Seventy per cent of the residents chose to install meters and 87 per cent of those who did were able to reduce their bills. People who didn’t want meters could remain on a flat rate.
There is nothing to stop this council or the new council that will be elected, from following Richmond's lead and giving residents a choice to decline meters or remove them.
Despite our disagreement with council's decision on this issue, we believe that council and staff have genuinely tried to find the best solutions they can for our city. It may be that we need to look at new ways of decision making that are more inclusive and collaborative. Alternate Dispute Resolution is being used successfully by many utilities, including the BC Utilities Commission, to achieve decisions that incorporate the needs and concerns of all stakeholders.