Water utility sees usage dropping
In a report last week to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, the utility reports the depressed economic climate and relatively wet summers have made it difficult to determine the effectiveness of conservation rates.
"Our sales have dropped drastically since GM's closing and cut-downs at other industries. Residents are also cutting costs where ever they can," said Katie Karow, water superintendent. "Sales are the lowest in a decade, but it started before the water conservation rates went into effect."
The PSC encourages water conservation measures and convinced the Janesville utility in October 2009 to adopt inclining rate blocks in which the price to residential customers climbs as usage increases. Historically, rates dropped as volume increased.
The conservation rates target residents who extensively water their lawns, but recent wet summers have decreased the need to irrigate.
A 335,000-gallon drop in consumption is being attributed to toilet rebates, which pay residents $50 for installing a low-flow toilet. The city last year issued 104 rebates. Residents can receive up to $100 in rebates per household for installing qualifying showerheads, faucets and toilets. Rebate forms are available on the utility's website.
Utility Director Dan Lynch likes the idea of rebates for water-saving devices and said the utility is considering expanding the program to include rain barrels and appliances.
Although 2010 utility revenues fell short of projections by 18 percent, or $1.05 million, Lynch said much of that was due to lack of housing starts and not conservation measures. The utility is reimbursed for new water main construction when lots sell, but new construction hasn't been so robust since 2008, he said.
"Conservation rates are neither good nor bad for the utility," Lynch said. "Those rates just redistribute the cost among and within the different customer classes. Residents using more water actually subsidize the cost for those who don't use as much."
Lynch believes society has traditionally undervalued the importance of water, which encourages waste.
The utility hasn't done a good job of conserving water, Karow admits. It loses about 15 percent of the 4.48 billion gallons of water it pumps annually. The PSC uses 15 percent as the benchmark to ask utilities to improve their performance, Karow said.
The number of identified leaks has been reduced from 128 in 2007 to 69 last year, but Karow says she's puzzled by the continued problem of water loss. This year, Janesville will hire a firm to listen for leaks.
"They have specialized equipment to listen at valves and other places—and I hope we have less water loss," she said.
Part of the problem might be the city's policy of replacing only undersized pipes. Unlike other communities, water mains 80-100 years old aren't necessarily replaced when streets are rebuilt. The utility's master plan approved last year recommended replacing aging mains, but that's a costly undertaking, Karow said.