I recently used a body wash that said on the back: “Did you know by reducing your shower by 2 minutes you can save an average of 40 gallons of water/week?” Water conservation is a laudable goal. Yet, the way our water bill was structured in our previous homes – the prices plus the measurement of the water use – illustrates how it can be difficult to convince Americans to use less water.
In our former home, our bill was structured this way:
- We paid every two months.
- The water use was measured in 1000s of gallons. For a family of three, we regularly used 9,000-10,000 gallons.
- We paid $1.50 for 1,000 gallons of water and $2.98 for 1,000 gallons of sewer usage.
Several features of this structure would make it more difficult to care about conservation:
- A two month time period was too long to see real changes in the bill. A significant change in water usage, say from watering plants during a hot period or the presence of visitors, would not create that much change over two months.
- Using 40 gallons less water per week would only lead to 320 less gallons over two months. This might affect a bill but only by one 1000 unit of water, if at all. This is too large of a unit for residents to think about. Our current water usage is measured in 100 cu feet of water, a unit that is very difficult to visualize or connect to everyday usage.
- The water price was really cheap. If we used 3,000 more gallons over two months, the cost was minimal: $4.50 in added costs for water and $8.94 in added sewer costs. The financial incentive to save water is reduced at such cheap rates.
A number of scholars have argued that Americans pay too little for water. This has negative consequences, such as wealthier residents using more water and cities losing lots of water before it gets to users. These problems could be addressed, even without immediately jumping to higher prices. Some of these techniques are already in use with utility bills:
- Bill users more frequently (monthly).
- Provide ways to show real-time water use.
- Compare users to other nearby users. This can help people who use a lot of water see “more normal” use.
- Show the bill in smaller water units that make sense to people. What is 1,000 gallons?
Raising prices could help too.