Our Water

Will conservation make a difference?

Strategies to extend the Catawba’s water supplies might get personal in coming decades as consumers and utilities learn to make do with less.

In Charlotte, average household water use has dropped by more than one-third since 2003. It stayed low even after restrictions on lawn watering and other outdoor uses were lifted after a 2008 drought.

Each flush of the toilets in my circa-1963 house drinks 3.5 gallons of water. New ones, required by building codes, use less than half that.

The question now is whether we’ve gotten as smart as our plumbing.

Some conservation will be invisible. Denser development means smaller lawns to irrigate. City officials also hope consumers will form new habits.

Conservation is both benefit and curse for water utilities. Less water sold means less revenue. Most public utilities are self-sustaining agencies that don’t get tax money.

Yet North Carolina legislators in 2007 ordered local utilities to create drought response plans that, for the first time, required conservation in dire situations.

“It’s a very difficult pill for local water utilities to swallow to tell customers they have to use less water,” said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality and a former water resources chief. “Doing that, to me, was a real epiphany in North Carolina.”

Charlotte’s post-drought move to make the biggest water consumers pay the highest rates sparked a suburban rebellion. Homeowners with big, well-watered lawns were outraged at the size of their bills.

In 2011, the city rolled out a new water-sewer rate structure that gave discounts to the heaviest users. Utilities officials reasoned that water used to irrigate lawns wasn’t flowing into sewers.

Swings in revenue when customers use less water continue, despite new fixed fees that reduce fluctuations. Charlotte Water has seen less revenue than expected from water sales the past two years.

“While these decreases are good for the region’s long-term water supply and to control long-term capital expenditures, in the short-term they pose potential revenue challenges” until rates and spending are adjusted, said the utility’s 2016 strategic plan.

Bruce Henderson