Superstorms and costal flooding may grab headlines, but water scarcity is emerging as our most immediate environmental concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent assessment highlights the increasing risk of water scarcity in this age of climate extremes and skyrocketing populations. Another recent study finds that if, by the end of the century, 500 million people are subjected to water scarcity, it will be the result of an optimistic warming scenario. Even now, the droughts plaguing many of the world’s most arid regions—including parts of western United States—are contributing to economic fragility and social unrest.
Water meters, small devices that track water usage, could play a key role in helping people understand the reality of water as a limited resource. Because they allow utilities to bill by volume, meters encourage customers to conserve—often with dramatic results. In this series, we will examine metering's effect on water consumption, its intersection with cultural norms and individual rights, and its impact on communities.The first installment highlighted water metering policy in Chile.
In 2009, only 55 percent of the homes in California’s San Joaquin Valley had water meters installed. That low percentage was not the result of a naturally slow adoption process. It was a result of aggressive resistance to the devices, which were billed as “taxing machines.” When the city of Fresno, in the heart of the arid valley, attempted to install 8,000 meters in a pilot program, a group of taxpayers fought fiercely and successfully to amend the city charter, banning residential meters.
The United States isn’t the only developed country with popular opposition to metering. In southern England a renewed compulsory metering drive has been met with indignation. Some customers claim that volumetric pricing is a tax on children, as larger families might now pay more. Financial concerns are colored by a popular distrust of England’s private utility companies. In the past decade, water prices have increased 84 percent, while the utilities profits have jumped up to 200 percent.
With correct regulation, however, residential metering encourages individual conservation. When coupled with grace period and gradual price increases, metering can be rolled out fairly. In Denmark, the transition to residential metering and volumetric billing were correlated with a 12.6-percent decrease in consumption between 1996 and 2007.
Metering also improves equity. When customers pay by volume, the implicit subsidy that high-volume users receive at the expense of low-volume users is eliminated. Although most residences in the United States are metered, regulations differ by state and even by district. Water is not always billed volumetrically. Many meters are never even read.
In the past, Fresno utilities charged a flat rate regardless of usage. For a city that averaged just under 290 gallons per person per day—almost triple the national average of 100 gallons—this was a problem. In light of diminishing aquifer levels and excessive usage, the California legislature mandated that any city drawing from federal dams install water meters by 2013.
Today, Fresno is almost completely metered, and the results have been positive. Patrick Weimiller, Fresno’s director of Public Works, told local news affiliate KFSN that he has already seen a reduction in usage. “Our actual numbers are showing we're about 17 percent below where we were with the fixed rate, with some room to grow.”
This post is the second in a series on water metering. The next installment will look at agricultural metering in the United States.
Rachel Lipstein is a junior at Yale College majoring in English major with a concentration in Writing. She is interested in sustainable agriculture and enjoys spending time on farms. Previously, she worked on the 108-foot sloop, Clearwater, which is dedicated to protecting the Hudson River through education, advocacy, and celebration.