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Salida urges residents to save water, but not too much

Brief by Central Staff

Salida water – September 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Walk around Salida these days, and you see a lot of yellow lawns, along with yards where there’s no grass at all. Perhaps some of that is the result of sloth or this hot and dry summer, but we suspect most of it is a consequence of water meters.

The idea behind installing meters (besides the fact that a state law required it, but the city government is often rather selective about which state laws it will chose to obey) was to reduce water consumption, so that the city’s supply of treated water could be stretched to accommodate growth.

Apparently this has worked too well. In the July edition of the municipal City Notes newsletter, Mayor Jaime Lewis wrote that “It is imperative that citizens try not to cut back too much on watering. Lack of watering causes two problems: (1) damage to trees and developed lawns,” and “lack of revenue entering the water fund. This would cause the city to raise rates! I encourage everyone to water, but water wisely.”

Lewis was worried about “the utility death spiral.” Utilities typically have high fixed costs (like reservoirs, pipes, and treatment plants for water) and low variable costs (assuming the raw water is available, delivering more water has a minimal extra cost once the facilities are in place).

So the fixed costs remain, even if customers cut back on usage. To recover the fixed costs then, the utility has to raise rates. That encourages more cutbacks, which means another rate increase …

Yet Salidans are responding rationally to the new rate structure, since additional charges over the tap fee start with the first gallon.

If the city wanted to encourage lawns and trees while discouraging waste, it would start with a flat rate that would entitle users to a given amount of water. (The given amount should be the same every month and would presumably provide a rational yet very conservative annual usage).

That amount of water could be accumulated in the winter months and used in the summer, thereby encouraging winter conservation and healthier summer landscapes. Then every fall all accumulations would be nullified (to keep bookkeeping simple and discourage extreme summer rationing).

Though such an arrangement may not sit well with those who have no trees and lawns, it should sit better than spiraling costs for minimal amounts. And minimal usage amounts could presumably be set low enough to assure that frugal users would pay far less than prolific gardeners.

Such rates could encourage appropriate watering, while discouraging excessive consumption. We figure this would work better than exhortations from the mayor, but on the other hand, since such a rate system is eminently logical, it’s probably illegal or something — which often seems to be the case these days.

The real issue goes beyond that. There are ways to build towns in high deserts — look at the older parts of Taos, with few lawns, but many sheltered courtyards that consume little water while providing a small oasis.

Salida, however, was built as a Midwestern railroad town, since that was what its founders thought towns should look like. The railroad depot, rather than the plaza, was the focal point of the town, and Salida’s 1880 founders quickly built ditches to supply elms, lilacs, lawns, gardens and other thirsty foliage.

To convert from Midwestern to Southwestern means replacing Salida’s architecture and landscaping. That’s not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all, and meanwhile, there will be a lot of decaying yellow lawns — since that’s what the city’s new water-rate structure encourages.