Donna Fena in the backyard of her home in Fresno. 'People are focusing too much on lawns,' Ms. Fena said in May 2015. 'There is still a lot of water around. I like fish, but I’m not giving up my lawn for some smelt. Let those fish die up north. There's a cycle of life.' Photo: Max Whittaker / The New York Times

By Nelson D. Schwartz
6 MAY 2015

FRESNO, California – When residents of this parched California city opened their water bills for April, they got what Mayor Ashley Swearengin called “a shock to the system.”

The city had imposed a long-delayed, modest rate increase — less than the cost of one medium latte from Starbucks for the typical household, and still leaving the price of water in Fresno among the lowest across the entire Western United States. But it was more than enough to risk what the mayor bluntly admits could be political suicide.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” Ms. Swearengin said, “that people here were fighting the installation of water meters.”

Nearly 15 years ago and 1,000 miles away in Santa Fe, N.M., officials faced a similarly dire predicament when a drought came within a few thousand gallons of leaving the city without enough water to fight fires. But Santa Fe’s response was far more audacious.

Santa Fe, in addition to raising the basic cost of water, decided to make the heaviest users of water pay more — much more — for the water they consumed.

Known as tiered pricing, the system wasn’t new or unique to Santa Fe, but in no major city today are the tiers so steep, with water guzzlers paying three to four times more per gallon than more efficient consumers are charged.

“It was a big wake-up call,” said Rick Carpenter, manager of water resources and conservation for Santa Fe. “There was some opposition, and it could easily have gone the other way. But the majority saw we needed to band together on this one.”

In moving away from the idea that water should be cheap for everybody just because it is so essential to life, Santa Fe’s approach to water pricing offers lessons in how other parched cities can balance the societal costs of scarcer, more expensive water in a relatively equitable way.

Because of the huge gap between tiers, the biggest consumers effectively subsidize everyone else, shielding poorer residents from feeling the full brunt of rate increases.

“So much turns on pricing when it comes to water,” said Robert Glennon, a professor at the Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona and the author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It,” a 2009 book on water policy.

“The beauty of tiered pricing is that it doesn’t prevent people from using water, and it doesn’t rely on government regulations,” Mr. Glennon added. “But it insists you pay more for extra water for your lawn than for basic human needs.”

The tiered approach has worked as intended. Since 2001, Santa Fe’s total water consumption has dropped by a fifth, even as the high desert city’s population has increased more than 10 percent. When water costs more as its consumption increases, people respond exactly as an economics textbook would dictate: They use less. […]

By contrast, in Fresno, which has a single, uniform price for water, per-capita usage was 222 gallons per day last year, after falling from even higher levels because of a variety of conservation efforts. […]

It’s a different story in Fresno, said Thomas C. Esqueda, director of the city’s Department of Public Utilities. Born in Fresno, Mr. Esqueda studied engineering in San Jose and served as director of environmental services for the city of Raleigh, N.C., before returning to Fresno last June.

“I feel like I’m in an alternate universe,” Mr. Esqueda said, sitting in his beige office, surrounded by maps showing the irrigation districts of California’s Central Valley, along with the city wells that currently supply 80 percent of the water for Fresno’s half-million inhabitants. “Anywhere else, people would be concerned.”

As was the case in Santa Fe not too long ago, the water table in Fresno is plunging. It has fallen 25 feet in some places in the last seven years, forcing the city to shutter shallower wells. New state regulations on contaminants are likely to shut down dozens of other wells later this year or early next year.

Two years ago, Fresno officials voted to raise the uniform water rate of 82 cents per 1,000 gallons — far below even Santa Fe’s lowest tier — to help pay for a new $429 million project that would make use of river water and let the aquifer recover. But the increase was called off after a political uproar and threats of court action. […]

A stroll down East Shepherd Avenue reveals sprawling mansions with impossibly green lawns, fringed with koi ponds, Japanese maples, and roses.

Ron and Donna Fena, who have a swimming pool as well as a koi pond in their backyard, say they used only 14,000 gallons last month and are following the guidelines on weekly watering, but they say that’s beside the point.

“People are focusing too much on lawns,” Ms. Fena said. “There is still a lot of water around.”

She complained that half of California’s surface water goes to keeping rivers flowing and other environmental needs, like sustaining fisheries and also preventing endangered species like the delta smelt from becoming extinct.

“I like fish, but I’m not giving up my lawn for some smelt,” Ms. Fena said, only half-joking. “Let those fish die up north. There’s a cycle of life.”

Tiered pricing would force people to reconsider their habits, Mr. Esqeueda said, but Fresno, he argued, can only move “one step at a time.” [more]

Water Pricing in Two Thirsty Cities: In One, Guzzlers Pay More, and Use Less


  1. Anonymous said...

    I don't like this lady. There is a cycle of life until you expunge some of it artificially. Then for that species, the cycle is over. She lives an incredibly superficial existence.  


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