Do we still need to conserve water?Posted: June 16, 2011
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.
There are risks in taking the sanguine view that we’re no longer in hot water** just because we’ve got a high-cost desalination plant. At the end of autumn, Melbourne’s water storages were only 55.4% full (as of today, the figure is 55.2%). The Thompson Dam, which accounts for two thirds of all system capacity, is currently only 40% full. The uncertainty associated with climate change means water security is not assured. Relying on the desalination plant should nevertheless be regarded as a last resort because it is a very emissions-intensive way of producing water. The argument that it will be powered exclusively by clean wind energy rather than coal is a con. There’re only a limited number of sites where wind turbines can feasibly be located, so it’s not as if extra capacity can be added for the desalination plant that wouldn’t otherwise have been provided for other uses.
Conserving water should be institutionalised into the way we think about this resource – how we use it and how water authorities manage it. Making water charges a much larger component of water bills should be a key way of ensuring customers think carefully about their water use.
* The sewage charge is actually calculated as a function of the amount of water consumed so it is in effect a usage charge. However, it is presented to the consumer as a fixed charge rather than as a variable charge. Simply combining it with the headline consumption charge would make a large difference to the conservation effect of water pricing — for example, it would increase the pay-for-use component of my current invoice from 32% to 58%. That’s still not enough, but it would be a big improvement.
** Apologies for the appalling puns — I couldn’t resist.