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Bean counters bet against more water conservation

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Albuquerque water use is down again, to 134 gallons per person per day over the past 12 months, according to the latest estimates from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

Good for you, water users, conserving like crazy in an arid land in the midst of deep, sustained drought.

Bad for the water agency’s budget planners.

For the fifth consecutive year, the utility’s management team made the same mistake in its budget. We used less water than expected.

Every year since the 2009-10 fiscal year, Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority water sales revenue lagged behind the agency’s annual budget projection. Over the past five years, the total shortfall – the gap between projected and actual revenue, totals $30.3 million – according to a Journal analysis of water utility financial records.

It is easy to attribute the agency’s financial woes on fallout from the community’s remarkable water conservation success, and that would not be completely incorrect. Less water consumption unquestionably leads to less water sales, which means less water sales revenue.

After five years of this, perhaps it’s time for the agency to stop underestimating Albuquerque’s enthusiasm for water conservation. But as the agency completes its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the spending plan approved May 21 by the elected officials on the agency’s board of directors is based on the assumption that your water use will go up in the next year, not down.

Albuquerque, where water use per person (all water, both business and home use, divided by the total population) has dropped 47 percent over the past two decades. That makes us more successful than many communities in the western United States, but we are far from alone. Per-person water use in Las Vegas (the big one in Nevada with casinos and a distinct lack of rainfall) is down 36 percent over the same time period.

Seattle, the last place you’d think of when water shortages come up in conservation, dropped its per-person water usage 45 percent over the same period, according to Michael Cohen, a water policy expert with the California-based Pacific Institute.

Comparing one city’s water use and conservation to another’s is difficult because of the different accounting systems communities use. But when Cohen tried to tackle the problem in 2011 for cities like Albuquerque that use Colorado River Basin water, he found that our experience is the norm, not the exception. “People and business are demanding less water than they did in 1990,” Cohen wrote.

But the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s latest spending plan bets you’ve finally hit the conservation wall, projecting that from the current 134 gallons per person per day, you’ll go up to 135 next year. That’s an extra 250 million gallons over the course of the year.

So have we really hit bottom? What might the water use demand bottom look like in a modern, rich-world city? To try to answer that question, University of California researchers Jay Lund and Ryan Cahill recently compared Albuquerque and other similar communities in the western United States with cities in Australia, which during the first decade of the 21st century responded to an epic drought by slashing their water use.

As I mentioned before, comparing one city to another is a challenge, but Lund and Cahill found that Australian cities like Melbourne and Perth were able to drop their comparable per-person use to between 65 and 100 gallons per day.

In response to the problem of declining revenue, the Albuquerque water utility’s board last month adopted a rate hike, loading the increase onto the base rate all customers pay regardless of how much water they use. A typical homeowner will pay $9.92 per month, up from $8.63, just for the privilege of hooking up to the system, regardless of how much water the customer uses. That rate structure, loading the increase onto the base rate, is a smart approach, helping to cope with costs that are fixed regardless of how much water customers use. But the rest of the agency’s rate revenue, which is still based on how much water you actually consume, remains vulnerable if conservation trends continue.

I, for one, would not bet against you in that regard. It’s your choice, but the Australian experience suggests we probably have not hit the bottom yet.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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