Reporter’s notebook: Analyzing water wages

Comparing water rates is a messy business. Here’s some of the methodology I used for Echo’s two-day series on water rates this week.

Most of the research was conducted in early February.  I surveyed 32 cities in the eight states bordering the Great Lakes. I chose four cities in each state with similar population sizes. Populations ranged from less than 10,000 residents, between 15,000-46,000, between 65,000-85,000 residents and the cities with the most residents in each state.

The states had inconsistent city populations. I’d find some states with about 20,000 residents, but not all eight states had cities in that range. That’s why the ranges aren’t uniform.

The survey size is also less than an ideal sample. For instance, it includes New York City, which is in a Great Lakes state but is hardly a Great Lakes community. Still, I thought these comparisons could at least give a sense of how other cities were handling rate structures.

I didn’t compare cities with drastically different populations because they have different water systems and management strategies. Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department serves more people than 400 smaller Great Lakes communities combined. It would be an imperfect comparison.

The cities were chosen at random. But unlike with a true scientifically drawn sample, I sometimes switched cities if I couldn’t find water rates information.

Here’s the spreadsheet I used to gather the information directly from each city’s water and sewer department.

Water rates are constantly in flux as city councils approve new charges or officials adjust charges to cover maintenance repairs, so rates featured in this series are subject to change.

COLUMN HEADERS

The population figures came from the most recent United States census data. The fixed and consumption water charges aren’t nearly as easy.  There isn’t a standard for water rates, so I did some math to make them more comparable.

Cities set fixed fees based on a number of factors. Some just have a flat rate, no questions asked. Other cities base their fixed charges on the size of the water meter, a gauge that determines how much water flows into a structure. But not all cities use the same meter size. Standard water meters sizes are five-eighths of an inch and three-quarters of an inch. That’s why there are so many columns for the fixed charges. It’s hard to compare cities based on fixed charges alone because of these different standards.

Standards for consumption charges are just as complicated. Some cities charge per 1,000 gallons. Others use terms like ccf — meaning 100 cubic feet — or mcf — 1,000 cubic feet. Unlike the fixed charges, these units can be converted into one, comparable figure. I chose 1,000 gallons to avoid terms with which most readers would be unfamiliar.  I converted each consumption charge into gallons — one ccf unit comprises about 748 gallons.

About three-quarters of the cities examined have block water rates, or rates that increase the more water is used. Most of the consumption charges are for the first block of usage (as indicated in the comments column of the spreadsheet). It would be infinitely more complicated to compare each block of the tiered system, so I didn’t go any further. Also, each block has a different limit. For example, in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., users in the first block pay for the first 10,000 gallons used. But that’s not the case in every city.

I noticed some charges were for more than a month, so I had to do a lot of dividing to get that one-month figure. These calculations are also noted in the comments section. The link to each city’s information is in the last column.

ANGLE OF STORY

Due to the limits of the data, I found it hard to compare the water rates of cities (even ones with similar populations) side by side. Instead, I looked at the relationship between the fixed and consumption charges. Whether intentionally or not, cities with low fixed rates and higher consumptions rates encouraged water conservation. I focused on this concept in both stories. Many Great Lakes cities have “conservation rates” (Survey shows Great Lakes trend of water rates that encourage conservation ) Waukesha’s water utility deliberately set rates to encourage conservation, but that’s not the case in every city. It also became clear that there are drawbacks to these rates. (Conservation rates: Bad for business?)

I used a few relative figures to give context, but for the most part I avoided numbing readers with numbers.

This is hardly a perfect study of water rates. But in a region so clearly defined by water resources, I thought it worth the attempt to explain the challenges cities have managing water pricing.

I understand the Great Lakes Commission has contracted for a region-wide examination of municipal water rates.  I look forward to doing a follow-up story when that study becomes public.

Here are some additional resources and studies on water rates:
— Water 2050: Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply and Demand Plan

2008 Ohio Sewer and Water Rate Survey

Circle of Blue, “The Price of Water: A Comparison of Water Rates, Usage in 30 U.S. Cities”

American Water Works Association, 2008 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey


JUNE 10
Survey shows Great Lakes trend of water rates that encourage conservation
Utility providers set high consumption charges to discourage water use.


JUNE 11
Conservation rates: Bad for business?
Utility providers can lose money if rates aren’t set correctly.


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About Rachael Gleason
Rachael Gleason

Rachael Gleason is a graduate of the Michigan State University and Knight Center for Environmental Journalism master's program. Rachael edited EJ Magazine and reported for Great Lakes Echo for two years. She currently focuses on water privatization issues. Rachael was quiz editor, SmackDown! editor and had a standing feature called Monday Mashup, where she reviewed interactive maps of the Great Lakes region. Rachael is originally from Texas, where she worked as a reporter, photographer and desk editor for several years. In addition to working for the daily newspaper of Huntsville, Rachael also worked as a business reporter for The Houston Chronicle, the newspaper of her hometown. Office: (517) 432-5155 Twitter: @rachaelgleason

  • Darrin

    The best way to compare is to assume some level of water use over a period of time (in our area they bill every 3 months) – so assume a residential account, 3/4″ meter, 5000 gallons per month use for 3 months. Then do it again for summer use or a large user – 20,000 gallons per month. Then again for a commercial user.