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December 22, 2014

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Citizens panel seeks ways to save water through rates

Las Vegas residents could soon see changes in their water bills in the name of conservation.

A 14-member citizens advisory committee for the Las Vegas Valley Water District met for the first time Friday, and took a close look at the four tiers of water rates in place now for residential customers. They also examined the connection fees that go with new homes and how those factors could encourage water savings.

Las Vegas water rates have not been changed since 1996 and remain some of the lowest among urban areas in the West, while connection charges for new homes have gone up.

The conservation group meets as another citizen committee is discussing emergency responses to more than three years of drought that now threatens the region's water supply in Lake Mead. Southern Nevada Water Authority Conservation Manager Doug Bennett said the conservation group's mission is not a response to the drought, but is needed to ensure that the region has adequate water for the coming three decades.

Much of any conservation plan must affect residential users. Single-family homes use 48 percent of the water used outdoors in the Las Vegas Valley, Bennett said, and apartment complexes use another 12 percent.

Outdoor use has been targeted for conservation because close to 70 percent of a typical Las Vegas homeowners water goes outside, mostly as irrigation or waste. The conservation measures also should take into account that a relative handful of homeowners use much more than others.

According to the water authority, the top 20 percent of homeowners use about half of the residential water consumed in the valley.

"There are some people who use extraordinary amounts of water, Bennett said.

The water district, which serves more than 800,000 customers in Clark County, has three tiers for water charges. The bottom tier, covering the first 5,000 gallons per month, is charged just 98 cents per 1,000 gallons of water.

The pricing goes up with each tier. At the top end, the fourth tier, those using more than 40,000 gallons will pay $2.27 per 1,000 gallons. The tier system is the heart of "price-sensitive efforts to encourage conservation," and according to water district Deputy General Manager Richard Wimmer, the method works.

But not well enough.

A decade ago, a similar committee set the goal of 25 percent residential conservation over 1990 levels by 2025. During the first years of the conservation effort, the water users met the annual goals.

But in the last several years, those goals have fallen short. Where the conservation plan called for the valley to be at a 22 percent conservation level, it is now at about 16 percent. And the need for conservation grows as the region struggles to meet new demands.

Wimmer, however, noted that the rate structure in place for Las Vegas could act as a brake for some growth although the region still adds about 20,000 new homes per year. The region pays some of the highest fees for connection to the water system in the West, with valley residents paying from $3,800 to $4,800 for a new home connection.

Las Vegas' rates for water for home use and irrigation, however, are among the lowest in the West. Wimmer said that is because the policy makers have consistently supported policies that ensure growth pays for growth.

The issue has come to the front burner recently as critics of the region's water agencies argue that more should be done to discourage growth, which they view as the primary threat to Southern Nevada's water supply. But Wimmer said those policies are already in place.

And those policies aren't popular with everyone on the new conservation committee. Richard Plaster, a committee member and president of Signature Homes, said he has some concerns that the connection fees are subsidizing the low water rates of valley residents.

Plaster suggested also that service charges need to be examined, and not only for the heaviest water users. He said even bottom-tier water users could use some prompting to save water, and not only in summer but also in winter months, when historically water use is much less.

He said the pricing system set up a seven years ago can be improved to affect all users.

"We'd probably be conserving more water now than if we hadn't made those decisions," he said.

Rates will be affected by the what the advisory group recommends and the water district board (the Clark County Commission) adopts, Wimmer said. He asked the committee members to focus on a goal of conservation.

"Rates are always very sensitive," Wimmer told the committee members. "The intent of this get-together is not to raise revenue. It is to accomplish conservation."

"We need to have a rate system that targets use, that sends a message that you have to conserve."

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