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Water rates may increase for big users

In case you forgot about the drought, a pointed reminder from the Las Vegas Valley Water District could show up in your mailbox sometime next spring. You will find it on your water bill, just to the right of the words “Amount Due.”

To drive home the importance of conservation, the state’s largest water utility is considering a rate hike skewed toward those who use the most water.

Dick Wimmer, deputy general manager for the district, said the goal is to “send a pretty pointed pricing message to those residential customers who use large amounts of water.”

The incremental increase now being discussed would average out to about 23 percent, though high-volume water users could see their bills go up by more than 30 percent while low-volume users see an increase “in the high teens,” Wimmer said.

Details of the rate hike are still being discussed. Any increase will be subject to a public hearing and a vote by the Clark County Commission, which serves as the district’s board of directors.

Residential customers make up about 90 percent of the water district’s accounts in Las Vegas and parts of unincorporated Clark County. Roughly two-thirds of all the water the district delivers gets used outdoors to irrigate landscaping.

Commissioners took the first step toward higher water bills on Tuesday when they voted to accept the recommendations of a citizens advisory committee convened in August to examine the district’s rates.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani summed up the recommendations in nine words: “Those who use it more pay for it more.”

With the committee’s recommendations as a framework, district officials plan to develop a specific rate-hike proposal for the board to consider sometime in December or January.

The soonest that higher rates might begin to show up on local water bills is April, Wimmer said.

The district also is considering a flat, 50 percent increase in its monthly service charge. For most residential customers, that would mean an increase from $4.04 to $6.06 a month.

In 1987, before the district implemented its current four-tier system of charging higher rates to those who use the most water, the service charge for most customers was $8.54 a month.

Pricing water so people use less of it is one way the district hopes to meet its goal of reducing per-capita consumption from 264 gallons a day to 250 gallons a day by 2010.

As recently as 1998, per capita use stood at 320 gallons a day.

Wimmer said the 14-member advisory committee sought a way to meet the conservation goal while avoiding unnecessary “rate shock” or unfairly impacting low-income residents and those who use a minimal amount of water.

The valley’s other water utilities are likely to adopt higher rates of their own, Wimmer said, because they have agreed to meet the same conservation goal the district has.

The committee recommended raising the rates and service charges gradually over time. It will be up to commissioners to decide how gradual the increases should be.

Giunchigliani made her preference known on Tuesday. “We have a crisis now. Quicker is better than later,” she said.

About 90 percent of the valley’s water supply comes from a single source: the Colorado River by way of Lake Mead.

Seven years of record drought have depleted the river and dropped the reservoir to its lowest level since 1965.

Eventually, Lake Mead could sink low enough to shut down one of two intake pipes that supply water to the valley.

“If the drought persists and we lose our upper intake, we’re going to have to take some extraordinary measures to meet peak demand during the summer,” Wimmer said.

To that end, the district may experiment with an additional, summer-time charge on its two highest water-use tiers, but not before summer 2009.

The seasonal rate would be designed to lower the peak demand for water during the hottest part of the year, Wimmer said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0350.

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