Water rates: They’re about to go up

Your water bill, like just about every other household cost these days, is going to go up. The Southern Nevada Water Authority needs more money to complete critical infrastructure and cover debt payments because new connection fees — a gushing revenue stream during times of rapid population growth — are about 10 percent of what they were just six years ago.

The authority intends to take on $360 million in new debt this year, $275 million of which will be used to complete its third intake, at the bottom of Lake Mead. This "straw" will guarantee the Las Vegas Valley access to a potable water supply should drought conditions drop the lake’s level below the two existing intakes.

The challenge facing the water authority and its board: Figuring out a way to increase water bills in a way that is fair to both residential and commercial customers and doesn’t force businesses to subsidize homes more than they already do. The board could vote on a plan as early as today.

The authority has proposed three options. Option 1 would be a consumption-based rate increase. Option 2 would be a fixed monthly surcharge. Option 3 would combine the first two options, with a lower rate increase and a lower fixed monthly surcharge.

Option 1 is the most balanced because it would increase monthly water bills by 18 percent to 26 percent across the board. A typical residential customer would see monthly water costs go up between $7 and $10. Both residential and commercial customers would have the ability to reduce the impact of the increase through conservation.

Options 2 and 3, meanwhile would hit businesses much harder than residential customers — and that’s not a good idea, given the current economy.

Shutting down construction of the third intake, or delaying its completion, is not a viable option — even with last year’s rise in Lake Mead’s level. Water authority chief Pat Mulroy said it would cost $100 million to decommission the project, which is two-thirds complete. "Who’s going to lend us $100 million to shut it down?" she said at Jan. 6 meeting with the Review-Journal’s editorial board. "We’re past the point of no return. This is the last intake this community will ever have to build at Lake Mead."

This will be a politically unpopular decision, regardless of which option the water authority board chooses. But in a state with 13 percent unemployment, with so many businesses and common citizens struggling to make ends meet, it makes no sense to punish one at the expense of the other.

Southern Nevadans should know that despite living in the continent’s driest desert, their water bills are among the lowest in the western United States. Ensuring we have reliable access to potable water — while keeping our water bills comparatively low — is priceless.

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