Bills go up, but water usage has actually gone down thanks to technology and conservation

Yes, we all began paying more for water as of Jan. 1. And yes, the worst drought to hit Southern Nevada in more than a century is part of the reason. Another part is the cost of providing the necessary infrastructure to deliver water to a growing population in the valley.

Our water comes from Lake Mead, which draws from the Colorado River as its primary source, which in turn depends on Mother Nature’s ability to bring sufficient amounts of snow to the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

That’s all basic stuff. But there’s another twist or two that you should know about, especially for those who live in Summerlin. The reality is that many Summerlin homeowners may find the rate increase to be not nearly as appalling as it is for others.

First — and this is for the uninformed — if you are a “typical customer,” the Southern Nevada Water Authority has increased your monthly water bill by about $1, but that’s just the start of a 15 percent increase being spread over four years. So, by 2017, the “typical customer” will be paying almost $5 more a month.

And what constitutes a “typical customer?” It’s a homeowner who uses 10,000 gallons of water a month, the water authority tells us.

“But lots of homes in Summerlin use considerably less than 10,000 gallons a month,” said J.C. Davis, a water authority spokesman. “To some extent, that’s because many homeowners in Summerlin live in newer homes, which were built to conform to reduced water usage.”

More important, Davis attributed the reduction in water usage throughout Southern Nevada to admirable efforts in conservation.

“Before 2002, we were using 325,000 acre feet of water a year,” Davis said. “We are now down to 230,000 acre feet a year in usage, and we’re serving 400,000 more customers than we did a decade ago.”

According to my old Webster’s Dictionary, an acre foot is “the amount of water covering one acre to a depth of one foot.”

More to the point, Davis said that thanks to the public’s conservation efforts, “we’re now using 29 billion gallons of water a year less than we used a decade ago.”

Water usage is down due to a number of reasons.

“For one thing, newer homes are being built on smaller lots,” Davis said. “In addition, there’s a ban on growing grass at new home sites.”

And without grass, that “typical customer” is saving between 5,000 and 6,000 gallons a month, Davis said. Additionally, the water authority is reusing more than 60 percent of all water through improved treatment technology.

So why are we paying more? Well, there’s a hidden factor that also comes into play, one that has had a severe impact on the water authority’s financial picture. It’s no secret that the real estate market in Las Vegas took one of the biggest hits in the country as a result of the recent economic collapse.

As Davis explains it, “when the economy was good, we were collecting significantly more than $100 million a year in new connection charges.” Much of that revenue was being generated from homes being built in the northwestern reaches of Las Vegas, particularly in Summerlin.

Of course that was especially good for the water authority’s coffers, as it was for everyone else in Las Vegas, until the new home construction industry dried up.

“Then we went from new connections revenue that totaled $188 million in 2006, all the way down to just $3 million in 2007,” Davis said. “It represented a decrease of more than 98 percent in new connection charges in just one year.”

Davis said that at present, the water authority is nowhere near what was reflected during that heyday.

“We’re not collecting one-tenth of what we collected in new connection charges before the economic crash,” he said. Thus, another reason for the rate increase.

As for the drought, he said the two worst years to affect the Colorado River — “after looking back 125 years” — occurred during the last decade. More troubling is the fact that at present the water level in Lake Mead is down more than 100 feet since 2000.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.