Simple questions about our water

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As the Waldo Canyon fire made abundantly clear, we need to think about water in the arid high desert in which we live.

That prompted me to ask Gary Bostrom, Colorado Springs Utilities’ chief water services officer, how much water we use.

Two weeks later, I received an answer from Mark Murphy, who works in CSU’s public affairs division.

“Our average annual consumption in recent years has been about 27 billion gallons/83,000 acre-feet,” Murphy said.

Why did it take two weeks to answer my question? Did it take that long for my question to move from one department to another? Is this the most efficient manner to respond to public inquiries?

Perhaps CSU needs to justify its bloated Public Affairs Division’s budget. How many employees does it take to craft a response? One is tempted to throw in a joke about screwing a light bulb, but perhaps this would hit too close to home.

Apparently, efficiency and transparency are not on their agenda. No, this is not picking on anyone in particular, just pointing out a culture of waste that probably will be shoved under the rug now that the big fire consumes all our attention. Isn’t it petty to pick at CSU when the Springs is burning? On the contrary, it’s what should be done.

Do we have enough reserves, long-term contracts, or is this an annual matter? According to CSU’s spokesperson, “We currently have about two years of demand in storage, which we feel is adequate. We typically do not lease water from other sources other than our yield from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which is an annual purchase; all our water is yield from the many water rights the city owns. We have on occasion purchased water from other providers, but those have been on a spot market basis and not long-term arrangements.”

How much does CSU charge (in the aggregate) for water, and how much does it pay for it? Answer: “As a not-for-profit, municipal utility, our goal is to recover only the cost of service and keep rates as low as possible.” But what are the numbers? Why bother asking if CSU refuses to answer those who are actually paying? It didn’t seem like a tricky question. Perhaps as users we should just trust CSU. Really?

What conservation efforts have you undertaken lately? A lengthy answer here: “State drought conditions have increased customer awareness for the value of water. Additionally, we offer a number of free resources — from xeriscape classes to online conservation tools. Our customers may also qualify for money-saving rebates for installing or upgrading irrigation equipment and efficient appliances (http://www.csu.org/residential/water/Pages/waterefficiency.aspx).

“Of note, we continue to help the Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department modernize its irrigation systems and update [its] water efficiency practices for sustainable water savings. Our staff members have conducted water audits, made landscape changes and system upgrades, such as installing more efficient sprinkler heads, rain sensors and irrigation controllers to help save water while benefiting our community. These improvements, along with a water conservation rate applied to more than 130 parks, have resulted in healthier turf and a decrease in parks water use by nearly 20 percent.

“Our customers continue to conserve. The combination of ongoing customer information, rebates, and tiered water pricing based on use has resulted in a 21.5 percent decrease in water use per person compared to 2001.”

Finally, is there a correlation between rate increase and decrease in consumption? What’s the tipping point? The answer: “There is a price for essential indoor use, a moderate price for typical outdoor use and a higher price for excess use. Calculations are based on monthly use. One cubic foot (CF) equals 7.48 gallons. Up to 999 CF 2.51 cents/CF; 1,000 to 2,499 CF 4.68 cents/CF; More than 2,500 CF 6.91 cents/CF. Average monthly water use is 1,100 cubic feet (8,228 gallons), resulting in a bill of $46.08. This is equal to about six-tenths of a cent per gallon.” No answer to the question at hand.

This trend is in line with an article titled “Residential water use trends in North America” (2011) that concludes: “when controlling for weather and other variables, the evident decline in residential use was pervasive among the national and regional components of the study. A household in the 2008 billing year used 11,678 gallons less water annually than an identical household did in 1978.”

Except for PR silliness, the Water Department is on board with the rest of the country. It therefore seems reasonable to follow Denver’s lead and keep it, while selling the rest of CSU.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com