The City of Saint Louis Should Implement Water Meters
I pose this question to the residents of the city of Saint Louis: Did you know that when your neighbors fill up the outside children’s swimming pool, wash their fleet of cars, or water their lawn until the grass is greener than the gardens of Shangri-La, you are paying just as much for their water as they are? Unlike many other large cities, suburbs, small towns, and hamlets, the city of Saint Louis has never adopted water meters as part of its water distribution system. Other cities are already moving from meters read manually by workers to meters read electronically, but Saint Louis still bills for its water through a flat-rate system that encourages overuse and inefficiency.
Saint Louis may have an abundance of water, but that is no reason to facilitate its overuse. Pricing is the most accurate way to limit resource usage to necessary levels. If city leaders wish the residents of Saint Louis to think of themselves as the zealots at Masada — wallowing in water while the Roman legions below suffered in the desert — then, by all means, flat-rate billing would accomplish that goal. If, on the other hand, city leaders want to facilitate conservation, choice, and a basic sense of paying for what you use, they should implement the very simple solution of water meters.
Numerous studies document the decrease in water usage that follows a conversion to meters. Denver saw a 28-percent decline in water usage after it switched to meters in 1995. A 1994 comparison in New York City between apartment buildings with metered billing and those without saw 36 percent less water usage in buildings with meters. Finally, a 1984 study for the Department of Housing and Urban Development compared multiple water conservation methods. It observed that meters were the most effective, and generally resulted in a 20-percent decline in water use.
Not surprisingly, many of the usage differences cited above are greatest during the summer months. With flat-rate billing, the cost of sprinkling your yard is shared by everyone. The one homeowner on the block that sprinkles for five hours every day still pays the same flat, quarterly fee for water as everyone else. I love a nice lawn, but I fail to see why the owner of the lawn should not pay for the water that maintains it. Meters are a simple and effective way to realize that goal. Furthermore, technology has reduced the annual costs of monitoring meters, giving the city even less reason to maintain flat-rate billing.
Water in Saint Louis — or, more exactly, the infrastructure to treat it and transport it directly to your house — is inexpensive by any measure. Even though the switch to metering would entail new costs, the long-term savings for many customers from reduced usage and conservation would offset those costs. Poor families in Saint Louis would still be able to afford their water bills if the city were to switch to meters, and could even save money by choosing to limit water usage. The low price means that lawns would still be green and pools would still be full, but a switch to meters would mean that you are no longer required to pay for the wasteful habits of your neighbors, and they would not pay for yours.