The Conservation Paradox

Saving water by stopping leaks is one thing. Saving water on the other side of the customer meter is quite another. What are your thoughts on dealing with this issue?

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This issue of Water System Operator features a water school in Peoria, Ariz., that teaches people how to conserve water with xeriscaping and with wise use inside the home. We see a lot of such stories coming from the desert Southwest and from other areas that have been touched by severe, long-lasting drought.

But in places like the Lake Michigan coast of Wisconsin — not really. It turns out there are two kinds of water conservation, one on each side of the customer meter. Every water utility is out to minimize leaks in the distribution system that contribute to what is variously called unbilled or nonrevenue water. That kind of inefficiency just plain hurts the bottom line — the utility collects, treats and pumps this water and gets nothing back.

But then there’s conservation on the customer side of the meter — the stuff of watering restrictions (voluntary or not), low-flow fixtures and appliances, and smart household water-use practices. Those are a whole different ball game. And in water-rich areas like mine, they are a two-edged sword.

What I’m curious about is: How do utilities where water supply is not an issue deal with this form of conservation? Would you care to share your thoughts?

Incentive problems

Conserving water is good — it saves energy and money to treat, pump and deliver less water. But customers often don’t have clear incentives to conserve in that way. I have seen the problem in a small Lake Michigan community near where I live.

Water rates went up because the city installed a brand new membrane microfiltration plant to replace the conventional filtration plant — the change was driven largely by the Cryptosporidium nightmare Milwaukee experienced years ago.

What happened when the rates went up? People (including businesses) started using less water. That meant lower billings for the utility. And yet the lower volume of water sold did not meaningfully change the cost to operate the utility. So the utility had to charge more per 1,000 gallons to stay solvent.

Rates went up some more, and people started getting mad — even those who had cut back ended up paying about the same as before, or more. So where is the incentive to conserve if it doesn’t get you a lower quarterly bill? All this happened without the city making an appeal to residents to conserve. In fact, the city would love to attract a new water-intensive industry or two so as to gain more volume over which to spread its costs.

Intrinsic values

Every instinct tells us that as homeowners or businesses we should conserve. It saves on chemicals. It saves energy, which in turn helps against climate change. It’s in the nature of many of us to be frugal, even if just for its own sake. But why take the extra measures to conserve — like collecting rainwater for the garden, taking shorter showers, replacing inefficient toilets, and generally being miserly with water, if all it gets you in the end is the same water bill?

More to the point, why should a utility not in a water-scarce area promote such practices when the economic benefits to customers are at best questionable? How much success will a utility have promoting conservation when all it really has to sell are the high-minded social values of frugality?

Maybe a utility in a growing community could talk about how conservation can head off building a costly new treatment plant, new water towers or standpipes, and so forth. But what about a community with already ample infrastructure for the foreseeable future? In that scenario, how exactly do you promote conservation? Or do you even bother?

What are your perspectives on this issue? How do you approach conservation on the customer side of the meter? Share your ideas by sending a note to

I promise to respond, and we will publish a compilation of comments in a future issue.


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