Water woes: The less we use, the more we pay (column)
London Community News
In July, 1988, when London’s population was just nudging 300,000, the city reached its record one-day total for water consumption: 379 million litres.
This July, with London’s population now about 365,000 and in the midst of one of the hottest summers ever, the most water city residents used in a single day was 184 million litres.
In short, while the population has increased by 20 per cent over the past 24 years, water consumption has decreased by almost 50 per cent.
That’s the good news–bad news story John Braam, the city engineer, faces as he prepares a campaign to sell us on the value of water.
The good news, obviously, is collectively we’ve become first-rate conservationists as a quick glance at the browning lawns in any neighbourhood might suggest.
The bad news, however, is the more we reduce consumption the more Mr. Braam and company struggle to raise the funds necessary to pay for and maintain the complex and expensive labyrinth of pipes that delivers fresh water from two Great Lakes to our taps and removes the waste water we flush away.
“Times have changed, obviously,” Mr. Braam says. “Twenty years ago if you didn’t have a green lawn your neighbours would be complaining. Back then we were pushing off to Lake Erie to get more capacity.”
Since then, and not just here, there’s been a significant decline in per capita use of fresh water. In London it accelerated after 2004 when, in the aftermath of the Walkerton tragedy, the province imposed new policies on municipalities: Water charges had to reflect all of the costs, not just transmission but repair and replacement too.
“Water is a very low cost utility,” Mr. Braam says, “but it’s one of the highest in terms of infrastructure needs.” London has several billions — yes, billons — of dollars’ worth of pipes underground and they don’t last forever.
“This is where we bring in the value of water, which is totally undervalued largely because we live in one of the wealthiest places in the world with respect to fresh water resources. It should be free — that’s what people think.”
And it is free — except for the cost of getting it here and getting rid of the waste. That cost has been rising about eight per cent a year since 2004 as London works to meet the provincial mandate. Every time the city’s charge goes up, however, consumers counter by using less.
One solution, which Mr. Braam is recommending to take effect in January, is two rates for water and sewer — a fixed charge everyone would pay for infrastructure and a variable charge based on actual consumption.
While everyone will be paying more next year — rates are expected to rise a further eight per cent for water and seven per cent for sewer — residents who leave town for long periods in the winter or summer may find their bill during absences is higher.
But higher is relative. Despite the fact some politicians insist it’s a tax, the monthly cost of water is the least of all utility bills for most residents. Precious to life water might be, but most of us still don’t value it — and changing that perception will be a challenge.
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. Email email@example.com.