Portland, Maine The grim economy is hitting some consumers in the wallet in yet another way: their water bills.
Many water utilities are raising rates because water use is down, in part because manufacturers have closed or are cutting back, tourism has fallen and the real estate market is in the doldrums.
Water sales for the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District in southern Maine fell 11 percent last year, to 1995 levels. The No. 1 reason is the sour economy, said superintendent Norm Labbe.
One of the utility’s largest customers, a catalog printer, shut its doors last year, putting 374 people out of work. Tourism also has been down — meaning fewer tourists are taking showers and flushing toilets in the motels in the region’s beachside communities.
“This is happening most everywhere. It’s a regional thing, it’s a national thing,” Labbe said. “Many, many (water utilities) around the country are seeing decreases in revenues. Because if industry goes down, revenues go down.”
A recent study by the Water Research Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit, on the recession’s impact on water utilities found that home foreclosures and business contractions have reduced water demand in many areas. Cities with high unemployment also have seen reduced water consumption as people move away in search of jobs, said Rob Renner, the foundation’s executive director.
Water companies for the most part get their money from customers. When water consumption goes up, revenues go up — but when consumption falls, so do revenues.
Water companies often raise rates to pay for high-priced capital expenditures, such as new water lines or treatment plant expansions. But they also have to hike rates when water use goes down to bring in enough money to pay their basic operating costs.
Changes in rates
Water rates are based on a wide range of factors, such as infrastructure and water treatment costs as well as revenues from water use. When water use falls, that would be a reason to seek a rate increase, Renner said.
Water consumption can be influenced by the weather. In the Northeast, usage declined last summer in part because homeowners watered their lawns less with the rainy weather. The epic drought that gripped the Southeast in recent years also resulted in falling consumption as people were ordered to conserve water.
Nowadays, the bad economy is taking a toll.
Even after cutting costs 10 percent and laying off nine employees, the water utility in Mount Pleasant, S.C., recently raised rates 9 percent after its customer base and water sales tumbled. That amounts to about $50 a year for the average homeowner.