Water Matters: Water rates

The current “snowpack drought” is affecting all the rivers in Western Washington, and water systems directly using those rivers for their supply, such as Port Angeles’ reliance on the Elwha River, are experiencing major water shortages and calling for conservation.

In light of this, I found it very interesting when I recently came across Sequim City ordinances from 1922 which founded its original water system and set rates and fees. The city’s first water system was a well, and conservation was the furthest thing from the minds of new settlers, but some of the price controls seem to have been encouraging something akin to water conservation.

In any case, the young city’s code from a century ago promises swift disconnection plus a fine up to $100 for anyone who is caught violating the new rules.

Fair warning of the seriousness of water!

On March 1, 1922, City Council passed its 62nd ordinance to have a special election asking 300-400 residents to tax itself: “Shall the Town of Sequim incur an indebtedness and borrow money not exceeding seventeen thousand dollars and issue its negotiable bonds therefor for the purpose of constructing, purchasing and maintaining a system of waterworks in said Town.”

The vision was to purchase the downtown Keeler well and water tower already serving that area as well as land for a reservoir south of town where water from additional sources could be stored.

After a successful election in April, bonds were sold and by early December another ordinance established an expense fund for operations of the new water works and a “sinking fund” to pay bonds and interest for investment in system expansion. Prices for system hookups and monthly rates to use water were fixed based on the type of use or the amount of use – with the apparent intention to meter every connection.

The price to hook up depended on pipe size ($10 for a ¾-inch connection up to $35 for a 3-inch connection) and assumed the water main was on a dirt road. There was a surcharge of $5 or $20 if the street was “planked” or already paved, respectively. (Commentary: It’s hard to imagine so great a volume of wood that streets were paved with it!)

The minimum monthly fixed rate for using the city water system was $1.80. A residence with a full kitchen and bathroom (toilet, lavatory and bath tub) paid $2.40 per month, and an additional toilet or bath tub would cost you 25 or 50 cents extra per month, respectively. (Commentary: Two toilets must have been quite a status symbol.)

It’s what you do

Certain businesses had expressly defined fixed rates, or minimum monthly charges. The highest rate at $3 per month was for a laundry, restaurant, hotel or hospital. Next highest was the monthly charge for a bakery at $2.50; a school got away with $2 and barbers, butchers, blacksmiths and pool halls were charged $1.80. (Commentary: I don’t know how butchers, with the water they need for all they do, managed to pay less than single residences.)

Ice-making plants, it is noted, did not have a fixed rate but had to be metered. (That sounds wise.)

Metered water was to be charged $1.80 per month for 3,000 gallons or less, plus $0.40 for the next 1,000 gallons and 30 cents for the next 1,000 gallons. The per-1,000-gallon rate continues to drop all the way to 10 cents when more than 100,000 is used. (Commentary: It sounds like large-volume water users were being given a break, to incentivize manufacturing most likely.)

The monthly rates for businesses were minimums; each type of business was to be charged “by meter, or no less than $x.xx” (the amounts noted above). In the ordinance the Water Department “reserves the right to place a water meter on any service” and maintain or replace it.

Apparently, that didn’t always happen; several decades later the council passed another ordinance that required businesses to install a meter, which it argued was “for conservation purposes.” (Commentary: As they say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.)

On irrigating with the Town’s water: “In the case of a shortage of water, the Water Department may forbid or suspend the use of water for irrigation purposes.” In addition, “All irrigation and sprinkling shall be immediately stopped when an alarm of fire is sounded.” The penalty was $10 for each offense.

“The use of hoses for washing walks, or streets, also for sprinkling and irrigation purposes, is prohibited, except between the hours of six o’clock and eight o’clock a.m. and five o’clock and nine o’clock p.m., except where water meters are used.” (Commentary: Perhaps an incentive to install a meter?)

Then and now

Sequim’s first water system was a well, but it diversified into surface water soon enough. Since around 2000 the system has primarily tapped two well fields and one shallow well under the River bed; however, the stability of the groundwater system depends heavily on recharge from the river. We are still reliant on surface water and track every gallon we pump.

In 1922, the base volume of water was 3,000 gallons, with each additional 100 gallons charged at lower and lower rates. A century later, every single gallon is measured and charged, and inverse pricing is used to encourage water conservation.

Sequim’s basic volume rate is 0.12 cents per gallon if 4,488 gallons (600 cubic feet) or less is used per month, but the largest users by volume (more than about 12,000 gallons per month) pay almost four times as much, or 0.45 cents per gallon.

Geek moment

The Dungeness River is flowing at about 125 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is roughly 60% of the long-term average for mid-August. To retain as much water in the River as possible during this critical season for salmon the state is leasing water rights from 21 irrigators to avoid some of their diversions.

We are fortunate to have had cooler and drizzlier weather this season — it lowers the risk of wildfire and the need for irrigation.

For the 2019 Water Year (started Oct. 1, 2018):

• Rain in Sequim through Aug. 19 at the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level): Total rainfall = 16.4 inches; New highest temp. = 83 degrees F on Aug. 4; lowest temp. still = 15 degrees F in October.

• River flow at the USGS gage on the Dungeness (Mile 11.2): Maximum, minimum flows haven’t changed = 1,870 cfs on Nov. 27 and 77 cfs on Oct. 25. Currently = 125 cfs. Range for the past month = 125-250 cfs.

• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Community Park: none; Bell Creek at Washington Harbor = summer flow is from springs at 1-2 cfs.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.