Don't blame drought for higher water rates in Seattle

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About to get more expensive

Forget those bare ski slopes in the Cascades, drought emergencies declared in much of the state, and headlines about the (some-would-say-long-overdue) dessication of California. Drought has nothing to do with it, but water is about to get more expensive in Seattle.

The Seattle City Council's Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee is expected to vote Tuesday on an ordinance that would let Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) raise rates by 1.7 percent next year and 2.7 percent in 2017. The agency projects larger increases for 2018 and 2019. A city press release says that under SPU's current proposal, which should come before the full council next week, monthly bills for a typical single-family home would go from $38.93 this year to $39.68 in 2016 and $41.13 in 2017.

Seattle is growing like gangbusters, but SPU isn't scrambling to keep up with growth in demand. To the contrary — thanks largely to water-saving fixtures and appliances — the city's water use has been declining. That's not just use per household; it's total use. Consumption has basically been falling for decades, albeit climbing a bit from the depths of the recession into last year. SPU projects retail consumption leveling off, but wholesale consumption — over half of SPU's water sales go to other cities and water districts in the Cascade Water Alliance — continuing to fall. If costs keep rising and sales volume falls, the only way out is to raise rates.

The release says the rate increase proposal has been driven by "updated inflation assumptions and new investments . . . such as preparing for water supply and utility system threats that may occur from climate change and developing a plan to better protect the drinking water system from earthquakes." (The city's water system doesn't face any danger, at least so far, from the current drought, but an earthquake just might damage some of the aging infrastructure. Seattle has nearly 300 miles of pipe that are 90 years old, and 250 miles dating from the 1950s, when the city expanded to the north.)

Of course, SPU customers pay for the infrastructure that carries water to them. As the rate press release explains, "Seattle’s water system is wholly funded by rate and fee revenues related to water service." East of the mountains, beneficiaries of federal and state projects do not pay for such things. Ironies, ironies: On the liberal westside, users pay. On the conservative eastside big government pays. And in response to this year's drought, big government will pay even more.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.