Plan to Lower Florida Water Rates Said to Threaten Conservation
By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
Florida state Senator Alan Hays thinks consumers in his state are paying too much for their water. He's pushing a bill that would prohibit Florida's Public Service Commission from allowing private utilities to charge customers higher rates for higher levels of water use — a so-called "tiered pricing" scheme that is used in many states to encourage water conservation.
Under the rate structure currently employed by many of Florida's private utilities, a resident using 15,000 gallons of water per month might pay considerably more per gallon than someone who uses fewer than 7,500. And for even larger blocks of water use, the rate is steeper.
The rates are "totally immoral and corrupt," says Hays, a Republican. "To have these exorbitant rates is something that needs to be stopped." Hays says he has received dozens of calls from constituents who are struggling to pay their water and sewer bills. He is also lining up support from colleagues in the legislature, where many members of the Republican majority are sympathetic to his views.
Because the Public Service Commission does not regulate public utilities, Hays' bill would apply only to Florida's 158 investor-owned facilities, which, according to the commission , provide water to 124,619 water customers in 36 counties.
But environmentalists argue that doing away with tiered pricing, even if just for a small portion of Florida consumers, would send a mixed message to residents of a state that has placed increasing emphasis on water conservation amid supply worries. Continued development and a shifting climate are teaming up to erode Florida's coastline, enabling saltwater to seep into aquifers and contaminate the water supply. And though an unusually wet October has helped recharge Florida's aquifers in the short term, that supply boost came on the heels of a record dry spell that prompted emergency cutbacks to water consumption.
Tiered pricing has grown increasingly common across the country, where nearly half of utilities employ the method in some form. By penalizing heavy water use, several studies have found, tiered pricing has successfully curbed demand. For instance, a state-sponsored study in Florida found that an increase of 80 cents per thousand gallons of water resulted in a decrease in residential consumption by 17 percent.
Under tiered plans, water savings usually come from reduced outdoor use, especially watering lawns less often. Costs tend to remain low for basic indoor uses, such as plumbing, bathing and drinking.
Hays says he does not oppose water conservation, but doesn't believe that tiered pricing is the right way to do it. He suggests that the state could apply penalties to excessive users and funnel that money into conservation projects. In its present form, however, Hays' bill doesn't address that issue.