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The Dry Garden: Looking at redesigned LADWP bill and considering the true cost of water

May 13, 2011 |  8:00 am

LADWP-Bill-water The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power  has redesigned its bill. It won’t make the price of water any cheaper, but it will make it easier for customers to appreciate how much of it they use. The hope is that this knowledge, in turn, will encourage conservation.

As a starting point to understanding any water bill, old or new, it helps to understand how water is measured and where it is most heavily used.

Most of us think of water in gallons, but back in the day, engineers who developed water meters preferred cubic feet. A cubic foot of water contains 7.48 gallons. Because most Angelenos use more than 100 gallons a day, utilities generally charge by the hundred cubic feet, or HCF. One HCF is 748.05 gallons.

To sharpen our understanding as to whether our water use is rising or falling, the new DWP bill not only gives the number of HCFs charged but also translates them into a long-term graphic illustrating water use. Upon opening your bill, you may find yourself smiling if the blue bars illuminating your history are becoming shorter, or grimacing if they are rising.

LADWP-bill-water-crop

The change I like best resides in print. The new bill plunks the daily household average use in gallons right beneath the graphic. It was always in the bill, but now it’s more evident. So you know where you stand among your fellow citizens, the latest figures for 2009-10 have Angelenos averaging 117 gallons per day. This improvement from 134 gallons two years ago is likely attributable to the success of a lawn-watering ordinance, a succession of cool years and high home repossessions.

There is still much room for improvement. We’ll know we’re where we should be when our watersheds are healthy and our summer gutters are free from sprinkler runoff. To sharpen the challenge, the state has set a goal of reducing water consumption 20% by 2020.

The shame of this laudable goal is that it is too easily manipulated by finessing the starting date. Given the state of our beaches, the Colorado River Delta and Northern California fisheries, environmentalists such as Heal the Bay President Mark Gold have set their own benchmarks. By 2020, Gold would like to see us at no higher than 100 gallons per day, per person, of fresh water, a standard that he argues would give homeowners incentive to do more to augment their supplies with rain trapping and gray water.

Whether your average is higher or lower than the department’s statistical one may depend on if, where and how you garden. In hot inland regions, as much as 70% of household water used is outdoors. In high-density areas such as Echo Park, the percentage plummets. The best way to measure your outdoor water consumption is to compare winter months, when one would hope outdoor water use is negligible, with hot summer months, when garden watering peaks.

From a utility’s point of view, urging consumers to conserve water is cheaper than importing more water or building desalination plants, so DWP and other Southland agencies have long sponsored rebates for low-flow toilets and shower heads, front-loading washing machines, turf removal and more. The DWP urges all Southlanders to contact their local water agency to check for rebates on water-saving devices and landscape makeovers.

DWP-bills-printing Of course, the number with most import for the most people on any bill is how much they owe. DWP's redesign of its bills (being printed, at right) haven't changed L.A.’s controversial price tier system. It has so many variables -- size of lot, climate zone, number of household occupants -- it can seem unfathomable. Even the people at DWP appear to have got the tier allotment wrong for a hypothetical hot-climate-zone customer created to publicize the new bill.

Economists such as UCLA professor Matthew Kahn argue that L.A.’s tier system unfairly benefits large land owners. To my mind, the real crime of our water pricing is the cost to the environment. The loss of Owens Lake and the Colorado River estuary, the slow decline of San Francisco Bay and mind-boggling pollution from lawn culture scarcely figure as “costs” in our bills.

It’s unlikely that they will any time soon. However, this week Angelenos have been given a new tool with which to set water conservation goals. This column will continue with weekly reports about how Southlanders can change their gardens in order to meet those goals.

-- Emily Green

Photo credit: Emily Green

Green's column on low-water landscaping appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow all of our coverage, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

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