Monday, November 21, 2011

Power of PR

The city of Long Beach recently announced a major milestone in one of its many water conservation efforts: removing turf from 500 residential landscapes.

The turf-replacement effort, which first received high visibility in Las Vegas a few years earlier, is one of many to make homes and business more efficient with water.

The story sort of buried the lead - that drought resistant landscapes use up to six times less water. This is a huge number, given that half or more of the water delivered to Southern California homes today is used for landscapes. Most earlier estimates said water-saving gardens and landscapes could mean a 30 percent reduction in water use. (Help me out here - "six times" vs. "30 percent"... different levels of savings, right?)

These sort of numbers, if you begin to add them up for every household in Southern California, could mean a much more reliable water future. I'm surprised someone has not jumped all over this.

Water agencies in California are busy implementing a range of water-efficiency efforts to get residents and businesses to use less. They must meet a 2020 deadline to reduce per-capita water use by 20 percent.

While rebate programs like turf replacement are helping to achieve improved water efficiencies, cities and water districts also are implementing at rapid pace a "tiered rate" structure. These rate structures are designed to make it costly for people when they waste water. It's the same structure that electric utilities began using after that last big energy scare in CA.

While some customers will grumble and many will contend that they are using water wisely, a price structure combined with an allocation formula quickly creates "opportunities" for the average homeowner to realize that, yes, they can indeed save more water.

Most water agencies have figured out that getting people to first save water now - through a more "gentle" approach of rebates and tiered rate structures - will be the more friendly approach with the easier consumer acceptance.

But, alas, nothing is ever easy with water.

While water agencies are getting people to save, they also are seeing declines in revenues from water sales. Yet, agencies have fixed expenses, such as maintaining their vast infrastructure of pipes, paying for water treatment chemicals, meeting salaries, and other costs that can't be eliminated or reduced without jeopardizing the system.

So, they must raise rates. So often, water agencies will thank their customers for saving water, then are forced to turn around and say "Now, we must charge you more for this service." Not exactly the kind of reward a typical customer was looking for.

Many water agencies that implement tiered rates are trying their best to keep the bill for its average, water-efficient customer at the same level. These agencies are counting on a percentage of their customers still wasting water and, thus, paying huge rates for water above their monthly allocations.

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