Op-ed: How should water be priced in Berkeley?

What does it cost for a typical Berkeley residential customer to use 500 gallons of water a month? 5,000 gallons? 10,000 gallons?

Given the scope of the drought California is experiencing, the results may surprise you.* After you pay the service charge, water is less than a penny per gallon in Berkeley, no matter how much you use.

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As you can see in the chart above, a 500-gallon customer pays about $36/month, whereas a 10,000-gallon customer pays about $140/month. This means that the 10,000-gallon customer uses 20 times as much water but is billed only four times as much as the 500-gallon customer.

Dividing usage by amount billed, the 500-gallon customer pays 7.3 cents per gallon, while the 10,000-gallon customer pays just 1.4 cents per gallon:

The numbers above include the City of Berkeley sewer fee. Without the Berkeley sewer fee, large water users in the East Bay get an even better deal. Here are my estimates of the monthly bill amounts for East Bay communities that don’t charge fees in addition to EBMUD’s standard fees:

This pricing breakdown is not unique to our water district – this is how residential water is priced in many communities across the country. In order to preserve our ever-dwindling water supply, however, water districts should consider reducing water service charges in favor of raising water usage charges. Doing this would reward savers and ensure the biggest users are paying an amount more proportionate to their level of demand.

Usage charges should be high enough so that customers are economically inspired to install low-flow showerheads in a similar fashion to how energy customers are economically encouraged to install compact fluorescent light bulbs.

If implemented statewide, such a pricing model would be one of many simple solutions for reducing water demand, potentially eliminating the need to continue with drastic and unseemly measures such as letting irrigated public lands go to desert, issuing billions more in taxpayer-funded debt, or building ecologically ruinous dams.

*MethodologyThe amounts posted in this article are based on my own personal estimates of the publicly available EBMUD 2015 schedule of rates and fees, using rates applicable to a ¾” meter. (The per-gallon results appear to be even more favorable for large users on meters greater than ¾”, since service charges are higher but usage charges remain the same.) All rates used in this article are available on the EBMUD website, except Berkeley’s sewer fee, which is available on the City of Berkeley website

To calculate monthly bill amounts, I aggregated typical usage charges, service charges, and surcharges for water flow and wastewater disposal of 500 gallons, 2,500 gallons, 5,000 gallons, and 10,000 gallons.

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Neal Eckard is a Berkeley resident who has recently started a small publishing company, Aardvarkansas, one of whose goals is to provide basic research on environmental issues.