Virginia Water Environment Association Response on…Water?

This morning the Times Dispatch ran an editorial by Grace LeRose, the President of the Virginia Water Environment Association. I should note that I know Ms. LeRose, having met her personally during some of the hearings on the James River TDML. In particular, pet waste is one of our shared concerns in terms of water quality. Her editorial this morning continued on the water quality theme. But it seemed as if it was in response to a column that I had submitted earlier on City water rates. Her column begins-

Recently this paper published an opinion piece declaring the City of Richmond’s water fees to be “outrageous.” As president of the Virginia Water Environment Association (www.vwea.org), a nonprofit educational association of wastewater professionals dedicated to preserving Virginia’s water resources, I offer the following observations:

The water (and wastewater) industry has been called the single most important public health development in the past century, bringing clean water to our citizens while removing and treating wastewater in an efficient (oftentimes unseen) manner. The incidence of water-borne disease has almost been eradicated in our country. Funding for investment in water infrastructure came from many sources — rate payers, local governments (by selling bonds), state governments (matching grants or loans to communities that could not afford these improvements on their own) and finally, the federal government. Like the interstate highway system that helped the US grow after World War II, spending on water and wastewater systems brought health benefits and access to an expanding economic prosperity for all Americans.

The importance of water in our daily lives can hardly be overstated. Water industry professionals work tirelessly to protect public health, more than 3 million miles of rivers and streams, 40 million acres of lakes, 87,000 square miles of estuaries (including the Chesapeake Bay) and 95,000 miles of coastal waters. The infrastructure that supports this massive effort — 800,000 miles of water pipe and 600,000 miles of sewer pipe — lies below our feet every day. These systems have worked silently for years, in some cases more than a century, to deliver and remove water and wastewater. The water and wastewater utilities have done such a remarkable job of producing and delivering clean water out of the sight of the public that the public can be forgiven if they think water should be always available and always cheap. We are now learning that water may not always be available and will probably not be cheap.

Of course, none of this is wrong- however, LeRose begins this piece as if she is offering a rebuttal to my column, yet ignores the rate structure issue. LeRose is not addressing my column in which I criticized Richmond’s plan to hike the minimum water/sewer service charge to $49.40 per month. Deriving the lion’s share of the revenue for the city’s water works from the minimum service charge does not promote conservation. If I conserve this resource and got my water use to below 1 ccf, this month and yet my water/sewer bill is still $47.03 for 0 ccf of service (soon to be raised to $49.40). Richmond’s minimum service charge may be the highest of any city in the United States, and that allows the city to keep the volume rate artificially low. As a result, there is no financial incentive to conserve water in the Richmond.

In Hanover, the minimum service charge for the water/sewer bill is only $14.03 per month. This is less than a third of Richmond’s minimum monthly service charge. Hanover promotes conservation by giving a volume rate discount to those who use little water. Hanover offers a heavy discount for the first 4000 gallons of water volume, while the volume charge increases almost three fold for the next 11,000 gallons of water and increases again for over water volume in excess of 15,000 gallons. Richmond has this backward and offers a discount, not to those who use the least water, but to those who use the most volume: over 74,800 gallons of water.

Can we get the Virginia Water Environment Association and other groups to address this? The local Sierra Club is on board, but where is the N.A.A.C.P., James River Association, or the Richmond Crusade for Voters? What does it take for citizen concerns to gain attention and triumph over corporate control these days?