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Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 12:01 am

Demanding answers

Does water conservation add up for Springfield?

Springfield’s power plant is the biggest user of water.

 

This month, City Water, Light and Power announced it would ask the city council to approve updating the water demand analysis done for the department in 1991, the better to assess how best to meet the city’s future water needs. The proposed study will try to answer a simple-sounding question: How much water will Springfield need in 2064?

The question can’t be answered with any precision, of course. Studies of 50 years ago failed to anticipate the deindustrialization of the Springfield economy, for example. There are questions that might be answered while we wait to find out. For example, how much less water will Springfield need 50 years from now if it begins adopting cost-effective efficiency measures now? The City of Springfield, after all, is not helpless, even in the face of population and climate trends it can’t control. The city manages the power plant that is the lake’s biggest user of water. It determines the building codes that determine how much water is used by buildings. It determines the retail price of water, which affects how much of it people use, and for what purposes.

CWLP itself has already reduced its draw of water from the lake by (for example) recovering more of the water used to carry ash from the boilers to disposal ponds, and using less of it to begin with. (The new Dallman 4 plant does not use water for this purpose.) Four options to save more water were laid out in a 2005 study by Burns & McDonnell Engineering Company. These include refitting one of the older generating plants so that boiler ash can be removed without water (so-called dry ash handling) and using treated sewage effluent instead of lake water for cooling.

According to Burns & McDonnell, these measures wouldn’t be economically feasible for CWLP “unless the demand for lake water becomes such that the city will have to expend significant capital on another source of fresh water.” In short, the city could justify converting to dry ash handling and cooling with treated effluent only if those things are cheaper than what it will need to do – like build a new lake – because it didn’t convert to dry ash handling and cooling with treated effluent. (It would be interesting to know what difference, if any, Dallman 4 makes to these calculations.)

Most water is consumed in the homes of the capital. It would good to know the costs of the many steps that might be undertaken to make those houses more water-efficient compared to the costs (all the costs, please) of a new lake. What, for example, might be the impact on demand of requiring that all kitchen and bathroom remodels of existing houses incorporate the latest water-efficient appliance and fixtures, as the State of California now requires?

The city offers rebates on some such equipment, but the way to speed adoption is not to lower the cost of the appliances, but to raise the cost of the water. Springfield’s water is absurdly cheap, the second-cheapest in Illinois outside metro Chicago. Make water more expensive, and installing water-efficient machines in the home becomes more appealing.

CWLP already uses what is known as an inclining block rate structure intended to incent water efficiency. Modest users pay $1.64 per 100 cubic feet of water while residential customers using more than a thousand cubic feet per month pay $2.74 per foot. In Irvine, Calif., water is much cheaper at the low end of the consumption range (91 cents per 100 feet). For the highest volume-user – everybody into the pool! – it’s $9.84. That structure offers greater incentives at both ends to reduce consumption than does the Springfield rate structure.

There’s no question that higher water prices reduce use, but apparently it is the average price, not the marginal rate, that affects how much water people buy. Probably the best approach would be for CWLP to charge a much higher flat rate to all classes of customer, and use some of it to help the poor pay their water bills.

The real problem is not that conservation is not economically feasible for CWLP, but it is not politically feasible. (I talk about this more in my blog, Second Thoughts.) Not having enough water can cost a person her life, but raising rates can cost an alderman his job, which is much, much worse; thus the dithering over wells and aquifers and gravel pits as secondary water sources. People will accept a rise in water rates to build another lake they think the city needs, but they will not accept a rise in water rates so the city won’t need another lake. In the first case they can see what their money buys (even if it’s only a mudhole) but efficiency shows itself only on what isn’t there.

That, by the way, is one thing you can predict will be true 50 years from now – people will still be foolish about their own interests.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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