Friday, January 27, 2012
Water Rates that are Fair for All | Casey's Last Word
It’s not quite up in the top tier of American values – liberty, democracy, free enterprise and home mortgage deductions – but volume discounts are very much part of the national understanding of economics.
It’s a simple notion: The more you buy, the less you should pay.
That’s why many people have a problem with San Antonio water rates.
The San Antonio Water System has what it calls “an upside-down economic model.”
The more water you use, the higher your rate.
It hardly seems fair.
One of the people who has been most vociferous about the SAWS rate structure is Joe Soules, father of City Councilman Carlton Soules.
Express-News Columnist Brian Chasnoff this week wrote a column about a recent City Council meeting during which Councilman Soules acted like “the Grand Inquisitor” in raking SAWS President Robert Puente over the coals.
The issue at hand was a bit different, but Chasnoff suggested that the younger Soules was, so to speak, carrying water for his father.
Several years ago the elder Soules sat on a citizens’ advisory committee on water rates and passionately represented homeowners with big yards who pay higher rates for keeping a green lawn than those with more modest yards.
“I will not help you rob my neighbors,” Soules is recorded as saying during one of the committee meetings, after warning that heavy water users tend to include heavyweights such as “powerful executives.”
Rich folks generally hire advocates who argue with more subtlety, but I’ll say this for Joe Soules: He was heartfelt in his feelings.
He was also wrong.
There is a very good reason for SAWS’s “upside-down” rate structure.
It is based very closely on SAWS cost structure.
San Antonio has historically been blessed with a huge supply of the nation’s cheapest water.
We sit on top of the Edwards Aquifer, one of the world’s greatest underground water sources.
Because much of the aquifer rises up into the hills north and west of us, the water is under considerable pressure by the time it gets to us.
Most of our wells are “artesian,” meaning we don’t even need electricity to pump the water.
We just sink a big straw into the ground and the water shoots up into our tanks.
And the water is so pure that we don’t need to treat it like cities that use river water do.
We just blow a small amount of chlorine in to kill dangerous microbes.
So the expense for our base supply is mainly for pipes and administration.
But with strong population growth and with state legislation limiting San Antonio’s use so as to protect the interests of others dependent on the Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio now must develop other water sources.
They store water in the Carrizo Aquifer, but have to pay to pump it back out.
They buy water from Canyon Lake.
They are building a desalination plant to treat plentiful but brackish water from south of San Antonio.
They’re building infrastructure to buy water from Gonzales County.
All of these sources cost considerably more than Edwards Aquifer water.
As a matter of fact, SAWS officials say the cheapest water available to them is from conservation which, incidentally, their rate structure encourages.
So, sorry Mr. Soules.
When it comes to water in these parts, there are no economies of scale.
The more water we use as a city, the more the additional water costs us.
Just like on your bill.