It rained last Friday, for the first time since we arrived in Adelaide just before the new year – an hour of steady, garden refreshing water falling from the sky. Down at the Kent Town station, it was recorded as 0.2mm, but up here where we are, 5km away and closer to the ranges that run down the south east side of Adelaide, we got much more than that.
By coincidence, our first water bill arrived on Friday.
It’s broken into four separate charges – a supply charge, covering infrastructure supply, a usage charge for the water we actually used, a wastewater charge, for well, wastewater including sewerage, and a levy to Save the River Murray. The money raised by the levy is used by the state government to, amongst other things, buy water allocations from upstream irrigators, so that more water is left in the dying river.
What I found curious was that our fixed supply charges, over which we have no control, far outweighed our usage charge (not withstanding that the previous owner of the house will be paying most of the supply charge this time around anyway). So I went digging around the SA Water site to find out what I could about the pricing structure.
The wastewater charge is based on property value – $1.424 per $1,000 of value p.a, with a minimum charge of $284 p.a. I found it hard to track down a figure for the average official house value in Adelaide, but according to SA Water, the average property value in the state is somewhere between $401,000 and $450,000. So being conservative, an average wastewater charge per year might be between $570 and $640.
SA Water was much more informative when it came to how much water residential customers use. It turns out that the average household in Adelaide uses about 241 kilo litres, or 241,000 litres of water per year. That’s priced at 50c per kilo litre for the first 125,000 litres, and $1.16 / kilo litre thereafter. So an average household can expect to pay water usage charges of about $200 per year.
Water usage is just not that expensive, in comparison to the wastewater charges over which customers have no control, other than by shifting to a cheaper house.
Having been a policy wonkette in my previous life in New Zealand, I contacted SA Water, and asked to talk to the policy people there. I spoke to a lovely chap, who was very helpful in explaining the reasoning behind the wastewater charge, most of which I had worked out for myself, but I wanted to confirm my thinking (water policy is a very new area to me). The big costs with wastewater are associated with infrastructure, which has a fixed cost. The wastewater infrastructure has to be configured to cope with storm events, not just average daily usage. Hence the high cost. Starting from a greenfields state, it might be sensible to have a fixed charge per property, but there are social equity issues involved, and for whatever reasons, over the years state governments from both sides of the political divide have elected to engage in some redistribution of cost by requiring wealthier people, with estimates of wealth based on property values, to pay more than people who are less well off.
The water use charges are genuinely based on what it costs to supply water. Alas, they will be getting more expensive in future, given the state government’s decision to build an energy hungry desalination plant. Because it is at the bottom of the Murray, South Australia has always been an efficient water user, but in the recent drought, and given the greed (my word, not the SA Water chap’s word) of irrigators upstream, the SA government now needs to find alternative sources of water.
But for the time being, water usage just doesn’t make up all that much of the average water bill.
What I find curious about all this is that the economic incentives associated with water use don’t match the rhetoric surrounding it. We are constantly urged to save water, to use water friendly appliances (for example, front loading washing machines instead of top loaders), to save water from say, showers and other comparatively clean uses within the house to use on the garden. Using water on gardens is strictly controlled – we are only allowed to water for three hours a week, and even then, we can’t use sprinklers – and people are encouraged to put in rainwater tanks. And it seems that people “supervise” their neighbours’ water use. There’s a lovely green garden a few blocks away from us, indicating substantial water use. The residents have defensive signs on the fences – “This property uses bore water.” There’s no need for signs like that unless people don’t trust each other.
So it seems that instead of using economic incentives to encourage people to minimise water use, the state government is using social control instead. People look over each others’ shoulders, comment on what they are doing, make judgements based on superficial assessments of what they can see, report perceived misdeeds to the authorities. Even worse, we have bought into the dominant meme, constantly assessing our own water use, and regulating our own behaviour, based not on what it actually costs us, but on what we think we are required to do. It seems that we have come to live in a water police state.