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Texans Coming to Grips With Rising Water Costs

Water and sewer bills are going up substantially across Texas and in many other places around the country as utilities struggle to maintain aging infrastructure, deal with drought or come to grips with the rising costs of a scarce resource while searching for new supplies.

By Christine Ayala, The Texas Tribune, and Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Paul Dowlearn poses for a portrait at Wichita Valley Nursery in Wichita Falls on Oct. 7. Dowlearn has been collecting rain water for years.

WICHITA FALLS — As this North Texas city struggles through one of the most severe droughts it has ever experienced, saving water is no longer just about avoiding fines or staying in the good graces of one’s neighbors.

Since the city raised water rates by 53 percent in October, it is also about saving money.

“We have big buckets in our showers that catch the cold water as it warms up and we carry those out and pour them on trees or bushes or whatever,” said Katie Downs, who lives with her husband and 8-year-old daughter near the edge of town.

Wichita Falls’ hefty price hike in one year is unusual, and it is mostly due to the phenomenon that encouraging extraordinary conservation rates means that utilities sell less water and need to make up for lost revenue. But water and sewer bills are going up substantially across Texas and in many other places around the country as utilities struggle to maintain aging infrastructure, deal with drought or come to grips with the rising costs of a scarce resource when searching for new supply.

“People have been hit on both sides,” said Jeff Hughes, director of the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The rates have been increasing higher than inflation, but also, salaries and wages have gone down in many regions.”

Those increases are causing people to get creative, especially in Wichita Falls. Downs said her family saves the last 2 ounces in bottles of drinking water for houseplants or their dog. Other residents in the city of 100,000 spoke of taking “Navy” showers — quick showers taken on ships with limited supplies — or using drought-resistant plants.

The popularity of such plants has been a boon for Paul Dowlearn, who owns a nursery in the area and sells plants that can withstand drought conditions, like red yucca and Texas sage. “I’m selling plants that can live on the rainfall, and I’m not talking cactus and gravel,” Dowlearn said, standing in the nursery’s small indoor area, where two large rainwater collection bins are surrounded by brightly colored plants.

A major reason for rising water prices is simply the need to catch up, Hughes said. Because most water utilities are government-owned, they have been loath to raise water rates enough to keep pace with the cost of maintaining old and expensive infrastructure — until breakdowns and staggering debt force increases. That is in contrast with electric utilities, which are regulated differently and are often for-profit companies.

“We have about $5 billion worth of infrastructure, and you’ve got a lot of things you need to do,” said Terry Lowery, assistant director of business operations for Dallas Water Utilities, which plans to raise rates by 3 to 6 percent each year for the next five years. “Moving water is expensive.”

In the Dallas area, invasive zebra mussels that clog pipes have caused spikes in water rates, too. And the fast-growing region’s search for new supplies, which could include a hotly contested multibillion-dollar reservoir in Northeast Texas, is likely to increase prices significantly in the future.

The San Antonio Water System is considering a controversial pipeline project that would cost $3.4 billion, bringing in groundwater from 140 miles away. That would add 16 percent to current water rates, the utility estimates. On top of that, more rate increases are needed to pay for repairs to an aging sewer system that had multiple failures in the past several years, contributing to a forecast from the utility that combined water and wastewater rates in San Antonio will increase by 41 percent over the next five years. 

Representing a San Antonio coalition of congregations, schools and unions, Diane Duesterhoeft told the City Council at a public hearing this week that low-income and middle-class families would be hit hardest.

“Special attention must be paid to how this project will impact the most economically vulnerable,” said Duesterhoeft. "It doesn't take a lot of courage to spend someone else's money. It does take courage to face the public and gain their informed consent on such a critical decision."

The San Antonio Water System says it has long offered discounts of close to 25 percent to people whose incomes fall near or below the poverty level. About 20,000 customers per month took advantage of that last year, according to the utility. Another program offers one-time payment assistance financed by private donations for those struggling with their bills.

Those types of programs are not common, though, and most government assistance for households is focused on electricity bills, which are generally much higher than water bills. Thousands of households in both Dallas and San Antonio — about 1 to 1.5 percent of ratepayers — fail to pay their bill long enough for their water service to be cut off, both cities’ water utilities said. Utilities send out multiple notices over a few months before cutting off someone’s water.

“We’ll still maintain our position as one of the lowest rates in the state,” said Greg Flores, a spokesman for the San Antonio Water System. He added that the utility is considering establishing a lower water rate for those using under 3,000 or 4,000 gallons per month — more than someone living alone in an apartment would use, and perhaps barely enough for a family of four that does not have a lawn. In Dallas, water rates have also risen much more slowly for households that use low amounts of water, and the bigger hikes have been reserved for high water users, Lowery said.

Wichita Falls does not have any city-funded programs for water bills. But Jim Dockery, the city’s chief financial officer, said some nonprofits help those in need and that the city is considering printing messages directly on billing statements that encourage customers to donate to the cause or ask for help.

Dockery said he expects things to get better once the city is out of the drought, but rates will still have to be high. That is because the habit of conservation is likely to continue, which means the utility will keep selling less water.

"A lot of customers have installed water conservation measures that they will likely continue using after the drought it over,” he said. “The price is going to continue to be high." 

But Dowlearn, the nursery owner, is not worried. He had rainwater collection systems at work and in his home long before the drought started.

“My wife and I have not paid a water bill in over 25 years,” he said.

Christine Ayala reported from Wichita Falls, Neena Satija reported from Austin and Bobby Blanchard contributed reporting from San Antonio. 

Disclosure: The San Antonio Water System is a corporate sponsor of the Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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