Greater Greater Washington

Sustainability


DC Water increasing impervious area charge, water rates

DC Water is seeking to raise water rates approximately $6.50 per month for FY12 to fund its Clean Rivers Project and pay debt service on its 10-year $3.3 billion capital improvement budget.


Photo by Dottie Mae on Flickr.

The largest portion of the rate increase comes from a higher impervious area charge (IAC), a fee assessed on property owners for surfaces that rainwater cannot penetrate.

The utility held its first forum Tuesday night in Ward 3 to gather public input on the rate increase. DC Water General Manager George Hawkins gave a short presentation on the authority's capital improvement projects. Residents then had a chance to ask questions, most of which concerned the IAC, hydrant maintenance, and lead levels in the water.

DC Water collects the IAC to pay for its Clean Rivers Project. This project aims to clean up pollution in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek. Approximately 2/3 of water runoff ends up in the Anacostia.

In the proposed budget, the IAC would increase from $3.45 to $6.87 per month, almost a 100% increase.

Other increases in DC Water rates included a retail rate increase from $46.09 to $48.84, DC PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) increase from $3.28 to $3.55, and DC Right of Way fee increase from $0.94 to $1.00. The total monthly increase would be $60.29 to $66.79, based on an average monthly consumption of 5,004 gallons of water.

Hawkins said DC Water originally intended to bundle the IAC with the retail rate for water. The fee would then depend on the water usage of a property. DC Water instead assesses the fee on all properties with impervious surfaces. This way, the fee captures properties with impervious surfaces but little to no water use (e.g. parking lots).

The IAC was a flat fee for all customers until October 1, 2010. DC Water changed the structure and created six tiers of properties, based on the amount of impervious surface on a given lot. Thus a person living in a rowhouse would pay less than the owner of a parking lot.

DC Water also collects an IAC for the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) for its own stormwater management program. One resident asked why DC Water does not call the IAC a tax. Others argued that because of water conservation systems on their property, the IAC is unfair.

Hawkins argued that the IAC is a fee, not a tax, because it is collected for a sole purpose: funding the Clean Rivers Project. For this reason, the fee also applies to the federal government, which owns a significant amount of property with impervious surfaces in the District. See this earlier post about that very issue.

Hawkins further explained that water conservation efforts would not lower the costs of the Clean River Project, so there is little incentive to offer rate deals to customers. DDOE, however, will offer incentives for conservation, thereby lowering its portion of the IAC. Hawkins indicated these incentives would be in place soon.

Though the IAC does apply to the federal government, it does not apply to District roads. Hawkins said this arrangement was part of the original decision to implement the fee. He indicated it would be difficult to now apply the fee to the city.

Hawkins highlighted some of DC Water's other capital improvement projects. The authority is replacing water mains and separating storm runoff from sewage lines.

He also said DC Water has mapped all fire hydrants in the city using GIS mapping. This allows DC Fire & EMS to monitor hydrants and find the necessary water pressure during emergencies. Low water pressure was a major factor in the fire that destroyed the Cafritz mansion in July 2009.

Lastly, Hawkins addressed questions about lead levels in the District's drinking water. He said lead levels are lower than or at federally mandated levels of 15 parts per billion. He suggested galvanized pipes, solder, or lead fixtures could increase lead levels. Residents can ask to have their water tested if they suspect higher levels of lead.

The forum was the first in a series of public meeting DC Water will hold throughout March and April, with one in each ward. They will hold a final public hearing on May 11th. Residents can submit written testimony if they cannot attend.

Jamie Scott is a resident of Ward 3 in DC and a regular Metrobus commuter. He believes in good government, livable communities and quality public transit. Jamie holds a B.A. in Government from Georgetown University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown. 

Comments

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Great piece. You mentioned the IAC is to be imposed based on actual lot coverage. Does a process exist for a homeowner to have things like a greenroof and impervious pavers not counted on the lot coverage? If yes, how exactly can someone get DCWater to know about that?

BTW: I really miss Hawkins not being at DDOE. The whole fiasco about the solar panel fund being raided by the Council would not have happened under his watch, IMO.

by SAS on Mar 9, 2011 11:41 am • linkreport

DC Water...DCWASA...a ridiculous sham by any name is still a sham.

I've seen my water rates more than double since 2001.

First there was the ~25% overnight increase in water rates in ~2002 when "gasp" WASA discovered the lead levels in the city water where many times the EPA threshold. So they pass an immediate double digit increase, followed by 3 more yearly double digit increases to pay for this multibillion dollar replacement of all the Districts lead lines.

Then they decide,NOT to replace them all, that they can moderate the lead levels by playing with the chemistry of their water treatment, yet have they returned water rates to previous levels? No.

Then WASA comes along and says we have to spend billions building immense water storage tunnels to retain storm flow during a rain until it can be treated.

Will my water rates be reduced afterward? No.

Pick a project and see it thru before you decide you have to spend billions more on another. I am not saying reducing the untreated runoff into the river isn't important. I am saying that we've been doing it this way for two centuries and it doesn't "have" to be completed next year especially with other supposed billion dollar projects on the books.

As far as I am concerned, DC water is more worthless than Pepco and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

by freely on Mar 9, 2011 11:43 am • linkreport

@SAS - I asked that question by twitter last night and the current answer is no, but DC Water says they are working with DC DDOE to develop regulations that would allow for such credits.

Right now the lack of fine-tuning is the biggest problem to IAC. You could have plenty of impervious surface on your lot, but have it all drain into a rain garden. Yet you're charged as if you have a parking lot that drains into the river.

by ah on Mar 9, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

He suggested galvanized pipes... could increase lead levels

No -- galvanized pipes (i.e., zinc-coated iron) cannot increase lead levels.

I was not there. Was there anything more said about lead-tainted water? Any changes in the water chemistry? Any news on projects to replace DC water-owned lead supply lines? Any data on the distribution of lead-tainted water in DC? About lead in the drinking water in the schools?

by goldfish on Mar 9, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport

@freely: I feel your pain. My water bill was $85 last month, up from about $40 a quarter ten years ago.

But water has essentially been free for years because maintenance has been deferred. We have to catch up -- storm water runoff (e.g., when people dump their car radiator fluid into the storm drain) has been an issue that has been acknowledged but ignored for decades. IIRC, lawsuits about this were settled 15 years ago, and only now is DC water starting to fix it.

The average household water bill has been projected increase to about $120/month. This had been known for a few years now.

by goldfish on Mar 9, 2011 12:03 pm • linkreport

@goldfish:

The zinc coatings used to galvanize iron contained some amount of lead until pretty recently.

@Jamie or anyone else who was there:

What was the tone of the meeting like? Were residents upset? How many attended? Were the DC WASA folks defensive?

by JAZ on Mar 9, 2011 12:04 pm • linkreport

Actually, the galvanized pipes that were used in homes before copper became predominant were often dipped in impure zinc that contained lead. Also, galvanized pipes seem to "absorb" lead, which is embedded in scale within the pipe and is then released even after lead service line is replaced.

by ah on Mar 9, 2011 12:08 pm • linkreport

@Jamie: Were you at that meeting? About five of us (including the guy who runs @myDCWater) were tweeting during the it. Good times.

by Tim on Mar 9, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

JAZ -- zinc coatings contained some amount of lead

Very interesting. Got a link for that?

But in any case I suspect a red hearing, to deflect criticism away from DC water. Most of the lead should come from the solid lead, DC water-owned service line.

by goldfish on Mar 9, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

@goldfish

See page 12 of this document: http://rohs-elv.exemptions.oeko.info/fileadmin/user_upload/Background/Final_report_ELV_Annex_II_revision.pdf

Or this description: http://curaflo.com/ResourceCenter/HistoryOfPipingMaterials.aspx

You can suspect any hearing--or herring--you like but I don't think it's possible to make any categorical statements abut where most of the lead in the water at any particular tap is coming from.

by JAZ on Mar 9, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

Whether or not DC Water/WASA is incompetent is only part of the story. They may be raising rates for reasons that will never come to fruition, but any raising of water rates is a net good thing, regardless of the reasoning behind it. This is somewhat less applicable in the relatively water abundant eastern part of the country, but in places like the arid SW, it's a huge deal. Both urban and ag users out there, while paying significantly different rates from each other, pay much much less than the true cost of the water. Only when people start consuming water based on a true cost basis will our water problems start to sort out.
Wouldn't you like to be a farmer in arid eastern Arizona paying $10 for an acre foot of water when the real cost is probably 50x that much.

by not so fast on Mar 9, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

@freely

DC Water...DCWASA...a ridiculous sham by any name is still a sham.

I've seen my water rates more than double since 2001.

It's not a sham because DC Water has tremendous capital needs. It's too bad that the bill is coming due and we have to pay now, but that's the price for letting the costs be too cheap in previous generations.

The bottom line is that we need a great deal of investment in our water and sewer systems, and part of that will require users to pay more. Personally, I think the Federal Government should help aging urban infrastructure like this more than they do, but that will still require substantial contributions from the local side.

Yes, it's a kick in the pants. But lowering the rates we pay won't solve the issue, it will only make it worse.

by Alex B. on Mar 9, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport

@JAZ -- thanks for the links, they are quite informative.

Nevertheless, it is wrong to not provide guidance about the source of lead. For example, your argument that lead was a common impurity in the zinc coating of galvanized pipes. Section 4.2 of your first link identifies this level to be 0.35% by weight. Whatever the amount of lead impurity is in a domestic plumbing system, it will be small because the galvanizing will not function if the amount of lead is significant (say, 10%).

There still are 15000 pure lead service lines in the city that are owned by DC water. WASA caused this problem by changing the secondary disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine. This increased lead leaching, from all domestic sources. So you have to look at were most of it is coming from, and the first place to look is the where the lead is relatively pure -- the service line and the solder.

by goldfish on Mar 9, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

@JAZ: Residents weren't necessarily up in arms. The questions were kind of all over the place though. One guy asked about lead. One woman asked about whose fault it is that after the city paved the alley behind her house, her basement floods (and before, it didn't). A couple of people asked about IAC. People weren't angry, but a lot of them weren't too happy about increasing rates, the IAC (if they didn't think they should pay it), lead, and some other things. They were very respectful though.

Most of the time was taken up by Hawkins talking though.

Actually, DC Water tweeted the whole event: http://twitter.com/mydcwater

by Tim on Mar 9, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

@Goldfish-those are fair points, but the question is whether to replace lead service lines. WASA's point is that replacing the lines doesn't do much good in reducing lead levels at the faucet if (a) only the public side of the pipe is replaced and (b) the house has galvanized pipes that have accumulated lead over however many years. Given that the cost of replacing the lead lines is being borne by all customers, it's reasonable to ask whether the replacement is cost effective at reducing lead.

by ah on Mar 9, 2011 1:34 pm • linkreport

@ah -- the partial lead service line replacement should never be done; it is either all or nothing. But this is a tough problem, because to require full replacement means that the property owner must pay to bust up his/her house to change out the plumbing. Not an easy law to pass, but the issue of poisoning one's children is pretty compelling.

The lead an copper rule is currently under review, my guess is because of what happened in DC.

by goldfish on Mar 9, 2011 1:41 pm • linkreport

@goldfish - DCWASA offers a pretty compelling loan/financing for anyone who needs money to replace the private side. I''m stunned that so few people took the opportunity to replace the private side when the program allowed partial replacements. I realize money is tight, but still . . .

by ah on Mar 9, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

@Alex,

I realize "past bills are due", but you choose your capital expenditures responsibly. You don't decide all of a sudden "ala Metro" to commit yourself to spending ~5 billion dollars over 10 years on capital improvements after having spent 50 million a year prior.

And as someone who has lived in the District for some time, WASA's rates were never significantly cheaper than neighbroing jurisdictions and we had rate increases like clockwork.

Lastly, as a rule I really hate these "rate raises to pay for something critical" programs because they never go away.

The Dulles Toll rd is a famous local example. It was built with the promise that it would only be tolled until they had collected enough to pay for its construction and to set aside a set amount in a trust to pay for future maintenance. That threshold was reached in 1998 but it had become such a gravy train, it persists and has become a prime funding source for the Dulles Rail expansion.

Does anyone actually believe that once the set amt has been reached for the rail extension, that they will reduce the toll to prior rates?

Pepco and Wash Gas are guilty too. "Short term" rate adjustments for this emergency program, or important fix that never seem to go away.

As I said, DCWASA has collected nearly a billion in higher rates the past ~decade specifically to pay for the lead line replacement that they've decided not to do. Where is that money and why didn't rates regress to lower levels once the "emergency" had passed? They instead decided to spend a few million tweaking their water chemistry.

Neither of these "emergencies" are actual emergencies. The storm water issue has been a problem in the District for nearly two centuries. You don't decide to "fix" a 200 year old problem in 10 years.

Now we have "The Clean Rivers" project, I am sure to be followed in a few years by "A Shimmering Water project", so on and so forth.

by freely on Mar 9, 2011 2:13 pm • linkreport

@Freely

But if they didn't charge high rates, how are they supposed to pay for all the Mayor's sign changes?

by Adam L on Mar 9, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

Who benefits when the Anacostia cleans up because a deep tunnel is built? Not just the public. A decade ago when there was still a great deal of time to build consensus among other stakeholders who could help pay for the deep tunnel - hello, $700 million in city tax dollars for a baseball stadium but zero for the tunnel? - WASA (now DC Water) decided that ratepayers were the only ones who would pay, on their monthly bills. The projected cost was $1.2 billion but it's widely understood this is probably too low by half. They are treating us all for chumps, just as the US Army Corps of Engineers did to the WASA when engineering the changes that caused the lead crisis in the water supply. The business community did not blush at being taxed to pay for the Nationals ball park, but for cleaner water? Not so much.

by Read1965 on Mar 9, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

These storm water overflow tunnels at 2.5 billion could be avoided if the District pursued low impact development and spend the money on planting more trees and putting in bioswales on roads and replacing impervious sidewalks and roads with permeable surfaces.

by dan maceda on Mar 10, 2011 6:51 am • linkreport

time to drill a well for watering the landscape.....

by overtaxedindc on Mar 10, 2011 8:05 am • linkreport

No one wants to pay higher rates but it's time to get the sewage mixed with stormwater out of the Anacostia River. Otherwise, we leave this problem to our children and grandchildren.

My guess is that an attractive and clean river will pay rate payers back in the form of higher property values, better recreation, and a competitive advantage in bringing jobs and industry to the City.

by Dana on Mar 10, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

@Goldfish

"WASA caused this problem by changing the secondary disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine"

This is true, however it was done as a safety mandate after 9/11 due to the water treatment plant being a potential (and easy) terrorist target. A few well placed explosives could've stopped the city's ability to process sewage and/or drinking water for weeks. Storing large portions of chlorine is like painting a huge bulls eyes for someone looking to cause havoc on a mass scale.

by Keith on Mar 10, 2011 2:47 pm • linkreport

@dan maceda

"These storm water overflow tunnels at 2.5 billion could be avoided if the District pursued low impact development and spend the money on planting more trees and putting in bioswales on roads and replacing impervious sidewalks and roads with permeable surfaces."

Dan not only is this incorrect, its completely ridiculous. We're talking about a MAJOR metropolis here, not a small town in the carolinas. Take a look at Google Map's or any GIS satellite map of the city and see how much is paved/developed vs green space. It will take alot more than impervious sidewalks and bioswales to handle storm run off. And even still the storm run over and sanitary sewer still share a common system.

by Keith on Mar 10, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

@keith -- the changoever to chloramine was due to EPA mandates. The high concentrations of chlorine caused disinfection byproducts, namely halomethanes, that are a carcinogen (see here for more information). The change to chloramine was to eliminate halomethanes. It had nothing to do with terrorism.

There were other means of secondary disinfection, but WASA went with the cheap one, chloramine, without considering the effects on the legacy plumbing. This caused the lead plumbing to dissolve into the drinking water.

by goldfish on Mar 10, 2011 5:25 pm • linkreport

How about the fact that the "fee" is going to increase every year until 2019 - when it will be $29.76 a month. So the DC govt gets $360 yr from you to finance a multi-billion dollar mega-water project and you pay and pay even before you use a drop of water. What a joke.

by Dean on Mar 21, 2012 7:56 am • linkreport

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