November 14, 2007

Atlanta Man Pilloried as Jerk for Water Use

AS THE SOUTHEAST suffers through an extreme drought, an Atlanta man has been pilloried as a selfish jerk for using some 440,000 gallons of water in October at his palatial home. This amount of water, we learn from no less a source than ABC News, is roughly equal to the water use of 60 average homes in the area. As one might expect, this story has infuriated pretty much everyone in greater Atlanta.

The man in question, Mr Chris G. Carlos, had attempted to hide from the inquiring press, but things apparently got so bad that he issued a statement basically saying: I had no idea I was using so much water, and I'm going to reduce my use accordingly. Apparently, he has already cut back to roughly 121,000 gallons per month, which is about as much as 10 typical homes use. So that's a start, I guess. He does have a very nice home with very nice landscaping and a pool, so I'm not going to criticize the guy too much, even if he probably should have thought about this sooner. I mean, when the governor is organizing prayer services to ask for relief, that's kind of a tip off that all isn't well.

Speaking of thinking about things sooner, I daresay Mr Carlos would have noticed how much water he had been using if prices had been adjusted accordingly to discourage excess consumption. Why the local water authority has not taken such a strong stance is beyond me. According to the Cobb County Water System, there are five tiers of use for residential customers -- ranging from $2.29 per thousand gallons for up to 8,000 gallons to $5 per thousand gallons for customers using more than 50,000 gallons per month. (The top two tiers had their prices recently adjusted upwards, from $2.98 per thousand gallons, but that's clearly no salt off one's back for a customer using that much water).

Now, I am no expert in water use, but it seems to me the proper way to discourage consumption is to enact a heavy price for excess use. So dig my idea:

* First, the System should establish a per-household usage ceiling (call it a caput, for tradition's sake) for how much water each household should -- on general principle grounds -- use in a month. This can vary accordingly due to drought conditions: in severe drought conditions as we have now, the caput could be set at 10,000 gallons per month, or roughly the typical home's use. These customers would be charged a very low fee for their water use, say $2 per thousand gallons (I am a fan of round numbers).

* Second, the System should increase prices ever more sharply as usage increases and as drought conditions worsen. For instance, use from 10,000 gallons to 20,000 gallons could be charged at $4 per thousand gallons. Use from 20,000 to 30,000 gallons could be charged at $10 per thousand gallons. Use from 30,000 to 40,000 gallons could be charged at $20 per thousand, while use from 40,000 to 50,000 could be charged at $40 per thousand. Use above 50,000 could be charged at $50 per thousand, and so on. Extreme users could face even larger charges; for instance, $100 per thousand when one hits 100,000 gallons per month.

True, this would result in heavy expenditures for some users. For instance, under the current regime, Mr Carlos' reduced 121,000 gallon use will cost him roughly $494 per month for the water as a commodity. Under my idea, Mr Carlos' use would result in a total commodity charge of $5,360 per month. I would submit that if annual water charges of $5,928 are not getting Mr Carlos' attention, then an annual water charge of $64,320 definitely would.

* Third, to get folks used to the new price regime, the System should offer conservation credits based on a user's water consumption the prior year. These would be based on percentage targets and be inversely correlated with water use. For instance, let's say the conservation goal is 10 pc, as it is this year. Anyone who gets below that benchmark would get a credit for doing so on their water bill. For homes using under 10,000 gallons of water a month, that could be a $2-per-thousand credit. For homes using between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons, it could be a $1-per-thousand credit, and so on, up to say a nickel for users above 50,000 gallons.

Thus, a home that used 10,000 gallons a month and got it down to 8,000 gallons would receive a $4 credit, or a 20 percent bonus. A home that used 20,000 gallons and got it down to 16,000 would receive a $4 credit as well, or a 6.67 percent bonus. If Mr Carlos got his 121,000 gallons down to 60,000 gallons, he would receive a credit of $3.05. That's not much at all compared to the $1,060 per month he would pay under my swell plan for water use, but it's something and it's important to provide everyone incentives for this to work. Obviously, the goal is to get the small users -- of whom there are a LOT more -- to conserve; for Mr Carlos, the real savings comes in not paying the higher charges.

Ideally, this is a plan that would only be used in severe drought conditions. If water is widely available, it wouldn't be just to charge even heavy users an arm and a leg for the stuff. However, in situations when water is scarce and everyone is on alert to not waste it, it would make sense to make sure supplies of this public good are carefully guarded. A well-designed water pricing scheme would go a long way in doing that.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at November 14, 2007 11:00 PM | TrackBack
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