Monday, September 13, 2010

Water Conservation & Behavioral Economics

How do you feel about water meters? I know how I feel, but I really want to know how others feel. The City of Fresno is about to flip the switch on water meters and that means people will pay based on usage not simply based on a flat rate. I want to lay out a few points that are important to me and see if they resonate with anyone else.

I was talking with a City insider about the water meters. There is concern that if the City flipped the switch and charged the market value (or cost) for water, it could put some residents in a tough financial situation. We will use an arbitrary amount for sake of discussion. We will say that one gallon of water will cost residents $1. Simple. There is one school of thought that says people should be eased into the change. Maybe the City can start by charging $0.25 for each gallon used. Then over time the rates can fall in line with the actual cost of $1/gallon. Another school of thought says to hit residents with the $1/gallon right out of the gate.

I am in favor of option #2. I use $1 of water I pay $1 for said water.

The first option is fraught with challenges. First there is the situation of repeated rate increase. People do not like those. Additionally, easing in might not result in the changed behavior we need for true conservation.

Gas approaches $4/gal and bus ridership starts to increase. Tickets for not wearing a seatbelt or for texting results in changed behavior. Use economics to change behavior.

Make people pay for water. I do not get gasoline subsidized. I pay full price for the enjoyment of driving. I should pay full price for the full green lawn.

City of Fresno, feel free to pass along the cost. If we don't want to pay out the nose, we'll change behaviors.


  1. I've felt the same way. Having to pay a flat rate doesn't do anything to spur conservation. Cutting back on my water usage doesn't do anything if the residents of the city as a whole aren't doing it. The number of pretty flyers and brochures you insert into people's bills aren't going to do anything unless people can see a change take place. When energy costs increase, people rely on using ceiling fans, knocking the thermostat down a few degrees, or other methods of keeping cool because they know the next month they'll feel it when their PG&E bill comes. Being responsible for YOUR payment based on YOUR usage really is the only fair way to deal with water usage, and I'm sure the city will see a drop in water usage/waste as a result.

  2. Healthy perspective. Marketing rarely moves the needle in the same fashion hitting people in the wallet does. I content that most people are economically driven first and environmentally driven second.

  3. The difference between water and gasoline is that water is a necessity for everyone and gasoline is not. If I can't afford gasoline, then I can change my lifestyle to suit that difficulty. If I can't afford water, I'm dead.

    I'm all for water meters and conservation, but I'm also for empathy.

    PG&E offers help for low income users so I don't see why we shouldn't offer the same for those who struggle to afford water. Flat taxes and flat rates can be a dangerous thing. It sounds nice to say we all pay the same for everything, but that excludes the idea that something may cost a dollar but that dollar is a lot more precious to someone that only has 100 than it is to someone who has 100,000.

  4. Also, continuing on some other thoughts, the idea of water use is a class issue as well as an economic issue. My girlfriend and I just bought a house. It has a front lawn and a back lawn. Understanding valley water issues, I'd like to someday supplant some or all of those lawns with drought resistant, lower water use landscaping but we can't afford to currently.

    I can stop watering my lawns altogether but that lowers property values and contributes to a depression in the value of the neighborhood. Many people judge yards that are brown and dead and we all make assessments about the values of residents that have dead landscaping.

    People, depending on their income, don't always have all the choices that others do.

    In fact, I think I'd like to see the city implement a program (if they haven't already) which would help homeowners change their landscaping to something more drought tolerant and maybe even create some ordinances that limit the amount of lawn space developers and home builders can include with new construction.

    Just my two cents more. Thanks for posting this and making me think about it.

  5. Well I would be down for this if the City practiced what they preach. I've seen freeway sprinklers on at 3pm on a 100 degree day. I've driven by parks where water is on at the same time on a hot day. I've seen city sprinklers broken and water just gushing out all over the place, not even hitting the grass. So for the City to say the residents need to converse water is a bunch of BS. I'm not intelligent enough to make my case. All I can say is that this isn't fair to me. Especially since my front lawn is so large. I guess I have to fork out the money so I can save money on my water bill. Thanks City!!

  6. When I say I have to fork out the money in order to save money, I'm refering to the suggestion Adam brought up regarding the drought resistant, lower water use landscaping.