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Water meters for Comox Valley and Kamloops?

The Comox Valley Echo reports that, “The regional district just released a draft water efficiency plan that calls for a 27 per cent reduction in overall water use in the Valley by 2014. …Possible conservation measures include rebates and education to encourage residents to install water-efficient toilets, washing machines, dishwashers and faucets. Other measures could include a rain barrel program, leak detection, water restrictions and a voluntary ‘waterwise’ pledge. …But according to the water efficiency plan, the single biggest — and most expensive — water conservation measure proposed is water meters.”

“According to the latest statistics from Environment Canada, residential use in the Valley amounts to 535 litres of water per person per day.”

“The Valley’s consumption figures are about eight per cent below the average for Vancouver Island, but 28 per cent above the B.C. average and 67 per cent above the Canadian average.”

That said, it has been argued that Comox Valley’s water use is on par with similar communities, but higher than the provincial and national averages because the Valley has significant green space and an agricultural base.

“Water meters are expected to deliver about three-quarters of the targeted 27 per cent overall reduction in water use.”

“There have been two main arguments against water meters, and they both involve money — meters will cost $17 million to install and some homeowners are concerned that once they are in, water rates will spout upwards.”

But Cumberland mayor and regional district chair Fred Bates says, “Seventy-five per cent of Canada is on water meters.”

“Bates said rates would be structured so that those who conserve water would pay less under meters than they do now.”

“The water measures outlined in the CVRD (Comox Valley Regional District) draft water efficiency plan could hit taxpayers in the wallet for as much as $130 million. Water meters, as mentioned, are expected to cost about $17 million, but on top of that the regional district estimates that a new deep-water intake would cost $53 million and a water treatment plant would cost somewhere between $30 million and $60 million. Education, rebates and other conservation measures are expected to cost about $500,000 per year, starting in 2010 and continuing until no longer required.”

“The basic concept with respect to costs is that if less water is used, less infrastructure is required to capture, store, treat and deliver that water.”

A Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) water policy document states, “Water meters are used by a growing number of municipalities as a way of measuring water consumption by households and businesses and promoting conservation. CUPE recognizes that water metering is a means to measure consumption and promote water conservation. However, CUPE believes that education needs to play a greater role in promoting water conservation. Metering and billing are important functions within public water systems and should not be contracted out to private contractors.”

CUPE also “advocates that municipalities ensure water rates not become a burden on the poor and that treated water continues to be affordable for all residents. To that end, it is (their) position that:

  • The amount of water required to meet the basic daily needs of people must be provided at nominal cost.
  • Where increases in water rates occur, these increases should be implemented in a gradual manner and not in a way that causes hardship to lower income people.
  • Smaller and more isolated communities are not in a position to recover the costs of operation and infrastructure from water charges without causing undue hardship on lower income people.”

The Council of Canadians has begun discussing this issue and will undertake a process of developing a position statement on water meters and water pricing.

The concern has been raised that water metering puts in place the costly infrastructure for water privatization. While water metering alone will not bring about privatization, it does make water distribution more attractive to the private sector. And as with most pricing mechanisms, those with money do not feel any added pressure to conserve, while others on more limited incomes can experience this need disproportionately.

Anita Strong, the chair of the Kamloops chapter of the Council of Canadians, recently wrote in the Kamloops Daily News that, “I am concerned that the City of Kamloops is once again pressing toward the metering of residential water. …Alternatives do exist to water meters – awareness and legislation would do much more to reduce consumption. Implementing new legislation such as mandatory use of six- (or three-) litre tanks when replacing the current 14-litre (or up to 18- or 28-litre) toilet tanks would save 44-74 litres per person per day. Fifteen to 23 litres per person per day could be saved by compelling people to replace present top-loading washing machines with front-loading models. Better legislation regarding exterior watering which would include fines high enough to be prohibitive is likely to have more of an impact on homeowners with a large garden than meters, especially during the peak summer periods.”

She also writes, “Installing water meters will be a costly undertaking for the municipality as well as for homeowners. The City will have to buy the meters, put them in the system and ensure maintenance and regular reading. Furthermore, a service for billing, accounts and payments will be needed. This service will have to monitor unpaid bills, cut water supply, or even seek settlement in court. Homeowners will have to pay for any plumbing costs related to the installation of the meters.”

“The major part of costs related to water is taken up by the infrastructure needed to collect, treat and distribute water and remain the same regardless of volume. Variable costs such as energy and chemicals are negligible by comparison. Therefore, pricing by volume would not be proportional to costs of production as these costs are essentially fixed. A bigger strain is put on smaller budgets as households with a lower income would dedicate a larger proportion of their budget to water. Homeowners with a high income can use a high volume of water without having the same effect. In fact, rather than having a prohibitive effect on large water users, studies have shown that pricing water by meters has had negative effects on poorer households.”

There is also “the concern that installing meters will open the door to privatization of delivery of water. It is a great mistake to underestimate this very real possibility. …The delivery of water is a lucrative service that is very appealing to private interests, particularly if public funds have already financed the setup of meters. We must not forget that the water systems in most cities were once privately owned. Problems caused by a limited aqueduct system, poor quality water or important financial difficulties of the companies induced cities to take over the network. Let’s not open this door to water for profit, not people, in the City of Kamloops.”

She concludes, “A much more equitable way of paying for water is through municipal taxes as they are generally proportional to water consumption as they charge according to the area of the property, the presence of a pool and the size of the house.”

The full Comox Valley Echo article is at http://www.canada.com/Valley+residents+thirsty+information+water/1702487/story.html.

The CUPE water policy document is at http://communities.cupe.ca/updir/communities/Water_policy_small.pdf.

Anita Strong’s column can be read at http://www.kamloopsnews.ca/article/20090611/KAMLOOPS0304/306119994.