Do we still need to conserve water?

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It seems the water conservation message is starting to recede as the Government and water authorities come to grips with the breaking of the drought and the oceanic task of paying for new infrastructure like the desalination plant and north-south pipeline. Some small evidence of this trend is evident from the latest invoice my household got from our water retailer, Yarra Valley Water.

Our consumption for the three months to 25 May was 626 litres per day. The invoice has the familiar graphic showing how to convert household consumption to per capita consumption, but there’s no longer any target to compare your performance against. We consumed 157 litres per day per person but there’s nothing to help make sense of that number. Unless you can recall the now-abandoned daily target of 150 litres per person, you won’t know if you’re consuming too much water or too little.

The other thing is water consumption charges still account for only a small proportion of the bill – in fact our 626 litres make up slightly less than a third of the total amount. The rest of it is made up of standing costs for “drainage”, “sewage” and “service” charges, which customers have no real control over*. So even if we worked harder at reducing our consumption, the financial pay-off would be pretty small. The pricing of water continues to offer little incentive for conservation, a point I made nine months ago.

Discouraging water use is now a financial liability for the Government and water authorities. They’re in deep water primarily because the former Government had a political problem – it needed to show it wasn’t out of its depth but had a plan to deal with the drought. But rather than navigate the politically troubled waters of low-cost measures like stronger conservation incentives (for example, by raising water prices) it did what governments usually do – spend big licks of money and rely on the costs being diffused over time across large numbers of customers.

This pattern of spending rather than managing is pretty much standard practice for governments. We currently have the possibility of immense sums being spent to address the congestion and capacity problems of Hoddle Street, when the vastly more efficient solution would be to price access to roads. We have the more likely prospect of even bigger sums being spent to construct a rail line to Doncaster when effective public transport can be provided by bus at much lower cost. Read the rest of this entry »