Denver Water wants you to use less, pay more

News that Denver Water is planning to jack up rates in 2010 by thirteen percent isn't really news. Last year, the utility stuck the average residential customer with a $20 hike; this year it's $40. Over the last decade, the amount the typical user in the city pays for this essential service has doubled. If something happens perpetually, is it news?

Yet you have to wonder -- especially with moisture dumping from the skies so plentifully at the moment -- where all those increases are going. Since the drought of '02-03, the city has made dramatic strides in conservation and had several wetter-than-usual seasons to bring its reservoirs up to snuff. Yet our reward for all this has been ever-rising rates.

True, DW has restructured its billing in recent years to soak heavier users more. Yet it's also raised overall rates with the aim of achieving "rate design induced conservation savings," in the words of this planning document. But a genuine success in lowering consumption means a drop in revenue, which requires more rate increases to sustain operations.

How you get off this hamster wheel isn't clear.

In fairness, it should be noted that Denver's water rates are still a bargain compared to many major cities. Even soggy Seattle charges about a third more. San Diego's residential rate is comparable to ours, once you do the gallon-to-cubic-feet conversion, but that city also has a much higher base charge. And DW insists this increase is needed for a host of upgrades and infrastructure repairs.

In other words, there's no truth to the rumors that the rate hike is going to:

A. Build a five-story parking garage to house the collection of old Saabs assembled by Denver Water manager Hamlet "Chips" Barry.

B. Increase annual salaries of the Board of Water Commissioners from $600 to $60 million.

C. Fund a massive new conservation-awareness ad blitz featuring Mr. Running Toilet Guy.

On second thought, I wouldn't rule out C entirely.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast