April 20, 2009

Money Down the Drain

I used the "stairs built by a drunken carpenter" graph in my last post to show how crazy Poway's tiered sewer fees are. Today I had several conversations with several people and to tell the truth, I don't think they get what I am trying to say. Maybe, I am the only one who is obsessed about my irrational and unfair sewer fee or I maybe I didn't do a very good job of explaining what has me so POd. I am going to go with the second excuse and try to explain it again.

First of all, the graph at the top of this blog doesn't show the sewer rate. It shows the tiered sewer "fees". The fees are the total amount, or purchase price that we have to pay for putting water into the sewer. The graph of Poway's sewer rates, the amount we have to pay for each unit of water we put into the sewer looks like this:
There are a couple of things to notice about the graph. The first thing is that it looks like a choppy wave.  That is because the sewer fee tiers are set up sort of crazy. They are at irregular intervals and the increases between the tiers are not consistent.  

The second thing to notice about the graph is that the wave seems to be moving to the left and the peaks of the wave seem higher as the wave moves to the left. What that shows is that the people who use the least amount of what is calculated to be indoor water pay higher rates to dump that water in the sewer. And, vice versa; the indoor water hogs pay the lowest sewer rates.    
Tier(units of water)    rate
Tier 1 ( 0-5 )                  $5-$27 /unit
Tier 2 (6-12)                      $4-8 /unit
Tier 3 (13-19)        $3.80-$5.50/unit
Tier 4  (20-26)                   $3-4/unit
Tier 5 (27-37)        $2.58-$3.44/unit
Tier 6 (38-50)        $2.14-$2.81/unit
Tier 7 (50+)      less than $2.15 /unit

So, where did these crazy sewer rates come from? Probably not really from a drunken carpenter. More likely from a drunken consultant. And not really drunk, but certainly not tasked with finding a fair way to charge for sewer use. And not tasked at all with trying to encourage conserving water.  

Giving a discount to large volume users is an old marketing trick meant to increase consumption. Vons has an advertised special going on this week. Healthy Choice Frozen Steamer Meals are $2.99 ea. If you buy 5 of them, the price drops to $1.99 ea.  Why buy 3 of them for a total of $8.97 when you can have 5 of them for $9.95?  You may be paying a little more than you intended, but you are getting it for a lower rate, so you consume more.  Our sewer rates are similarly structured to promote higher water use. As far as I know, the Point Loma sewage treatment plant is not offering a special incentive to Poway for sending a higher volume of sewage their way, so I do not know what possessed Poway to structure the rates the way they did. 
Here is a comparison of Poway's Water rate and sewer rate:

The water rate is a nice steady $2.61/unit for everybody, no matter how much water they use. That sewer rate varies from $27/unit down to $2.15/unit.  The people who use less indoor water are paying more per unit to put that water in the sewer pipe than they paid to buy it in the first place.  The council is going to increase the water rates.  They may restructure the rates so that large volume users will pay more per unit of water. That will incentivize people to use less water. Poway needs to restructure their sewer rates too. Right now they incentivize people to use more indoor water. 

Some of you may be wondering why I complained in the last post of being assigned to Tier 3 instead of Tier 2 based on my water use from 2, 3 and 4 winters ago. Shouldn't I be happy because my sewer rate is lower?  No, I am not happy about it and I will tell you why. Because of the lame way that Poway configures how much sewer water I use, I am paying for water I never got and certainly never put into the sewer. It is as if I paid for 5 Healthy Choice meals for $1.99 ea, but  only 2 of them were put into my bag. I would have been better off paying $2.99 ea for the 2 I actually got.

We don't have meters that measure how much water flows into the sewer from our homes, so the city has to have a method to make some approximation.  They use the average of the lowest water use from the last 3 winters and multiply that by 85% to determine how much water each single family residence is putting into the sewer.  During a very dry winter my lowest water use may be 20 units instead of my regular 8-10 units.  I use that extra water for my trees and gardens. That water never goes into the sewer. The averaging method was intended to moderate the figures in a very dry year, but the effect is that 1 or 2 very dry winters can skew the figures for the next 3-4 yrs.

There are other events that can increase winter water use: extended family visits, a plumbing failure or leak;  a teenager who discovers that a clean body and nice smelling hair make them more popular or any number of other events. Some of these events are temporary.  If you fix the leak, say good-bye to the in-laws, send your progeny off to college, your winter water use will decrease. But you will still be dinged for 3-4 more yrs. because of the way Poway determines your winter water use.

For an incentive to be effective, the reward must happen in close approximation to the time period when the hoped-for behavior occurs.  People are not likely to reduce their water  use because they will see lower bills 3-4 yrs later. It would be far more effective (and cheaper to low volume users) if Poway determined sewer use on the previous winter only. During an extremely dry year, Poway could make other adjustments. It will still not be completely accurate or fair, but it will be far better than the current method Poway uses to calculate indoor water use.

Poway's sewer fees suck. To fix them Poway needs to do 2 things: restructure the rates and change the way they approximate indoor water use.


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