May 19, 2023
Water Use and Rates
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The Water Resources Task Force, comprised of citizen volunteers with a range of helpful expertise, has been hard at work for over a year looking into many aspects of the Town’s drinking water system. A final report by the Task Force is forthcoming in the next couple of months. One area of investigation has been the role more conservative use of water can play in ensuring an ample supply of water despite the changes we are witnessing in weather patterns and other challenges.
The group first did an analysis of the past 10 years of water use. The analysis confirmed what then Select Board member Eli Boling had researched back in 2018 when the town first introduced a tiered rate structure to try to encourage through pricing better water conservation. Manchester residents on average use more water per capita than most other communities in the area and throughout the state. Residents use some 50% more water per capita than the neighboring town average. We are amongst the top 10 heaviest users amongst 287 Massachusetts towns and cities. (These numbers do not include any commercial users, which account for <5% of our metered usage of drinking water.)
The state’s target is a maximum of 65 gallons of water use per capita per day (GPCPD). Manchester residents are more than 20% above this target at an average of 78.5 GPCPD. However, there is a wide range within this average. The 50% of households with the lightest usage consume about 26 GPCPD while the other 50% of higher-usage households consume 126 GPCPD. Indeed, half our drinking water is consumed by only 17% of households.
Seasonal variation in town is also exceptional (and not in a good way). Summertime use is more than double wintertime use. This ratio is also much higher than neighboring communities where summer averages are 1.4 -1.65 times higher than winter use. Again, there is a wide range here. Many Manchester residents are similar to our neighbors. But others increase their summer use of drinking water to 4 times their winter use. Summer irrigation is the main reason for this high seasonal fluctuation.
The news is not all bad. About 2/3rds of all households in Manchester are already conservative users of drinking water having a per capita use below the state’s target. And during last summer’s drought, residents responded across all user levels to lower consumption. This allowed us to weather the drought without any fears of running too low on our water supply.
Manchester has benefited enormously from the foresight of leaders more than 100 years ago, ensuring that we’d have both highly productive wells and our own reservoir. Being more conservative with water use is an important tool to preserving this legacy as well as the reliability of our water supply. At a minimum, it provides a buffer against future unknowns. As we think about ways to implement wiser use of our water supply three key steps have been identified by the Task Force.
New, state of the art water meters can provide each household with real time data on how much water is being consumed. These meters allow you to monitor your daily consumption. This is useful in many ways, from quickly detecting a leaking fixture to challenging yourself to lower your consumption while tracking how you are doing. These new meters are designed to remain very accurate over time and would allow the town to go on a more frequent billing cycle which again is helpful in reminding people to conserve water. In addition, the Water Division will shortly change its bills to report your drinking water usage in gallons instead of the opaque HCF (hundred cubic feet).
With so much of our water use going towards irrigation needs, a focus on more efficient strategies to irrigate (e.g.: drip vs aerial spraying) and refocusing on more native plants that do not require as much water can be another significant way to reduce water consumption. Meadows can be as beautiful as manicured lawns – and with the many side benefits to wildlife, the meadows can provide greater joy. Communities in the southwest are paying residents to replace their lawns with more native landscapes to significantly reduce water consumption. There are lessons to be learned here.
Lastly, the rate structure for water bills can be adjusted to influence behavior. Our current rate structure, while charging more to higher users, does not appear to be much of a deterrent; the per-gallon differential is relatively modest between low- and high-usage households compared to other models aimed at conservation (today our highest rates are about 40% above our lowest rates) The Task Force has asked the Select Board to consider consolidating our six volume-based rate tiers to four and implementing a much more progressive tiers for households using significantly more than the recommended 65 GPCPD. . The proposed structure would reduce water bills for the majority of households and increase water bills for higher usage. The very highest-usage households (about 3% of all users) would see their bills increase fairly dramatically, up to 3 times what they are currently paying, unless of course they find ways to conserve drinking water.
The Select Board will be considering these approaches in the coming months as they review the recommendations of the Task Force. Any changes to rates must be considered at a future public hearing.