Asheville Citizen-Times
Guest Commentary
Wednesday, February 9, 2005

More equitable Asheville water rates would help maintain watershed and fix water lines

by Gracia O'Neill

We applaud the City Council's decision to back away from a questionable proposal for the management of the Asheville watershed that would have cost taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars. However I would like to respond to a comment made by Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks quoted in the AC-T's Jan 21st editorial "Council's step away from logging inside Asheville watershed makes sense." At the Council's public hearing on the issue, Hanks had said, "the only way to generate any money is through timber." In fact, we can solve a number of problems without looking to the watershed itself as the way to generate more revenue for maintenance projects.

With all the buzz about logging the Asheville watershed to generate revenue for desperately needed maintenance, it surprises me that nobody has stopped to take a look at Asheville's water rate structure - the prices the City charges to different types of customers for the amount of water they use. There are three basic types of rate structures. There is a uniform rate (you pay at a steady rate for each gallon used), an inverted or "water saving rate" (you pay more per gallon the more water you use), and a declining or "water wasting" rate (you pay less per gallon the more water you use).

In Asheville, residents are on a uniform rate - we all pay the same amount per gallon no matter how much water we use. However, non-residential water customers are on a "water wasting" rate. When businesses and industries use less than 1,000 cubic ft. (7,480 gallons) of water per month, they pay $2.77 per 100 cubic ft. However, when they use more than 1,000 cubic ft. per month, they only pay $1.24 per 100 cubic ft -less than half as much as smaller users, and less than 1/3 of what single-family residential customers pay!

Why should residential customers subsidize water for industry while neglecting, or even endangering, the source of our own drinking water? And why should we encourage business and industry to use more water than they actually need?

One of the casualties of charging unsustainable water rates to businesses and industry is our city's failing distribution system. Asheville's water lines are constantly leaking and breaking, and according to the editorial, "Latest water main fiasco highlights need for truly regional water authority" (AC-T, Dec. 9), there may be up to 200 miles of pipe beneath the city that have not been mapped. The editorial, highlighting the recent explosion of a 16-inch water main beneath the Firestone store on Tunnel Road, also quoted Hanks saying "Luckily, nobody was in there when this happened . . . It probably would have killed somebody."

Instead of talking about the trees in our watershed as an untapped source of income, why don't we look at the fact that Asheville has one of the highest rates of water loss due to leakage in the state. The city can't get any income from treated water that doesn't get delivered to customers. If the city charged sustainable and equitable water rates, enough additional revenue could eventually be generated to fix its leaking pipes. By fixing the distribution system and preventing treated drinking water from leaking into the ground, the city would save even more money.

The notion that logging is the only way to generate revenue for maintaining the Asheville watershed is absurd. In addition, we aren't really "generating money" when taxpayers have to pay the cost of additional filtering equipment to clean the sediment (created during logging) out of our drinking water supply. It's time to call on our officials to have the courage to charge sustainable and equitable water rates for the sake of maintaining our water supply and infrastructure. Revenue generated by switching businesses and industry to a uniform or better yet, a "water saving" rate, would help pay for maintenance of the watershed and repairs to our water delivery system without any additional money from residents and without endangering one of our most valued natural resources - our drinking water.

(Gracia O'Neill is outreach coordinator at Clean Water for N.C., a nonprofit environmental justice organization based in Asheville. CWFNC promotes clean, safe water and environment, and empowered, just communities for al North Carolinians through organizing, education, advocacy and technical assistance. CWFNC can be reached at (828) 251-1291)
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