Ottawa·Analysis

Ottawa's low-volume water users surprisingly quiet over rate change

It was somewhat surprising not to hear more in the past few weeks from the more than 28,000 customers who use less than 6,000 litres of water a month and will be hit hardest by the changes to how Ottawans are billed for water.

Under proposed water rate change, light users are facing a heavy increase

The City of Ottawa is one council vote away from changing how its water and sewer rates work. (Asianetindia)

Of the 10 members of the public to speak at Tuesday's environment committee on the revamped water and sewer bill, only Doug Poulter was — in his words — "one of those low-volume users."

"Under this proposal, I'll be looking at four times what I'm currently paying now," Poulter told councillors. ​

It was somewhat surprising not to hear more from the 28,000 customers who use less than 6,000 litres of water a month: these are the so-called low-volume users and, despite being the most frugal consumers, they would be hit hardest by the changes to how we're billed for water.

If there's anyone who should be upset about this water bill revamp, it's these folks. Whether by circumstance or by design, they've led environmentally responsible lives as far as water usage is concerned.

And now, they're about to get walloped.

For example, someone who uses just 2,000 litres of water a month would go from spending $8 a month to about $30.

Someone who uses 5,000 litres? The new monthly bill would be $33, instead of $20. (For comparison, the "average" use is about 16,000 litres.)

Focus has been on rural complaints

Instead, we've heard mostly from upset rural residents who aren't on the city's water system, but are now being asked to pay as much as $4.44 for stormwater services.

A homogenous group living in just a few wards, the concentration of these voices can really pump up the volume of your argument. 

They packed seven public meetings and flooded their rural councillors' office phones with complaints.

Even Glenn Brooks, the former councillor for the Rideau-Goulbourn ward, showed up at committee to protest the stormwater charge (although the current councillor, Scott Moffatt, more than held his own defending the new changes). 

And yet, rural residents have a lot less (if anything) to complain about than low-volume users.

Changes needed to deal with continual deficits

For the last three years we've seen water and sewer deficits of $16 million, $19 million and $13.5 million.

We're on track for a surplus this year only because we had a dry summer and everyone used a ton of water.

And that's a problem.

Water usage varies so much and to such an unpredictable degree that city staff needed a more reliable source of funding to pay for the water and sewer systems.

So instead of basing the entire utility bill on usage, the new structure calls for a "fixed" portion of the bill: $9 for water services, $8 for wastewater sewers, and $9 for stormwater sewers. 

That means anyone connected to the water system automatically pays $26 before using even a drop of water.

You'd be charged for water on top of that, but the fee increases as water consumption also increases, so there's still an incentive to conserve water for most.

In comparison, rural homeowners not connected to the water system would pay just $4.44 per month towards the stormwater system.

This would cover $2 million of the $8 million spent annually on stormwater systems in the rural areas and would be the first time rural residents contribute toward their stormwater costs in 15 years.

Time to help low-volume users

City staff say that under the current system, folks like Poulter have been underpaying and that his monthly charges don't come close to covering what it costs to get water to and from his house.

Coun. David Chernushenko chairs Ottawa's environment committee. (CBC)

"The honest answer is that you are now seeing the real price of water services," said Coun. David Chernushenko, who chairs the environment committee.

He added, "That's of little comfort to those low-volume users that are seeing their bills increase."

Chernushenko and staff took pains at Tuesday's meeting to say that the proposed rate structure "isn't perfect, but it is fair."

Still, it's a questionable strategy that sees the customers who cause the least wear-and-tear on the system getting hit the hardest. Councillors should consider whether the higher-volume water rates could be even higher, with the lowest rates falling lower.

And Chernushenko has promised to study whether low-volume users are also low-income residents who can't afford the increase.

"We're going to monitor this closely to see if this makes a difference to some people's disposable income," he said.

This new billing system wouldn't come into effect until 2018. So there's plenty of time for council and staff to look at how to make it at least a bit fairer for low-volume users — the interest group we really should have been paying attention to this entire time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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