GUEST COLUMN - The other side of water metering

I am concerned that the City of Kamloops is once again pressing toward the metering of residential water. I understand that excessive water consumption in Canada and especially in arid cities such as Kamloops is (and should be) a cause for concern and that we should all be doing something to address this flaw in our personal habits. The question is, what?

In a recent column by Coun. Nancy Bepple she addressed the issue, not so much as a question of how to reduce water consumption, but as a question of how best to implement the scheme of water metering - which the people of Kamloops have already expressed their views on by referendum. Her argument seems to hinge on the premise that the only way to decrease water consumption is to meter it. This argument is unfounded.

Yes, Kamloops uses much more water than the average Canadian city in the summer - we live in a desert. The City has made great strides in educating the population about watersmart gardening and xeriscaping in the last few years and people are becoming aware of the precarious state of the world's water supplies - including our own here in Kamloops. We should give them credit for caring about this precious resource and about their environment.

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.

If a person can afford a large garden, he is more likely to be able to afford a large volume of metered water. For example, a normal water hose uses 1,000 litres per hour, which means that using metered water to wash down one's driveway for an hour would cost less than $1, demonstrating that the cost of water is not prohibitive and that a proper framework of legislation is needed to change people's behaviour.

The City of Kamloops already has a number of public awareness guidelines to better use of water for personal hygiene in the form of colourful brochures and pamphlets - suggestions such as installing low-flow shower heads and turning off the tap while brushing teeth or shaving.

These materials should be much more accessible as, in my experience, not nearly enough people are aware of them or of the necessity for water conservation. The experience of other cities shows that legislation and awareness could allow for a 30 per cent decrease in domestic water consumption while the necessary upgrades to infrastructure could save up to another 30 per cent by reducing leaks in aging infrastructure, thus bringing us well within the national average.

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.

Addressing the cost of water to consumers is one of lateral as well as vertical equity. That is, laterally - all taxpayers must be able to benefit equally from the service, and vertically - people must pay according to their budget.

Neither of these goals is achieved through metering for the following reasons: 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.

Furthermore, unpaid bills will be tricky to deal with. Do we want to go the way of England where clients with a bad credit rating means they have to pay for their water in advance?

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.

Pricing through taxes is also more efficient because it does not add any operating costs and is already collected from all households. Costs have been shown to be 62 times less than charging for specific volumes with water meters. It is also rare that taxes remain unpaid, owing to the stern enforcement measures put in place by municipal administrations.

Finally, Coun. Bepple brushes off 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.

Recently in Turkey, the World Water Council, which is a group of transnational water corporations and the World Bank, all unelected, have taken for themselves the role of speaking for the whole world.

They are pushing one development model - a model through which all water is privatized and the market determines allocation. It is up to the world's citizens to resist this model if we are to keep water as a human right and in the hands of the public.

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.

Anita Strong is chair of the Kamloops chapter of the Council of Canadians.

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