Fort Worth watering limits could become permanent

02/17/2014 6:02 PM

02/18/2014 9:22 PM

The city’s conservation efforts may keep the water flowing for future generations, but in the meantime officials are dealing with a major source of funding drying up.

The Fort Worth Water Department took in $11 million below anticipated revenue last year because of the two-day-a-week watering restrictions and a decrease in oil and gas drilling water use.

As a result of conservation and to anticipate the rising cost of water, the city is raising water rates at the same time the Fort Worth City Council is considering making the two-day-a-week landscape watering restrictions permanent.

Conservation will be the best long-term option for the city as the demand for water increases without an increase in sources, say city officials. Even though usage has dropped an average of 26 percent per resident since 1999, the city is still buying more water to serve a growing population.

“Obtaining new supply sources to get us more water and to meet those growing needs is going to be very expensive,” said Mary Gugliuzza, spokeswoman for the water department. “It is going to cost considerably more than what our conservation efforts are costing.”

Councilmen Jungus Jordan and Joel Burns, both members of the infrastructure and transportation committee, said the conservation efforts are needed to safeguard water for future generations.

“Even if we started today, it would be 20 to 30 years before we could bring in new supplies of water,” said Jordan. “The biggest concern is that we do what we can today to ensure that this important resource is available to us in the future.”

Jordan said he has heard support for the watering restrictions from his residents.

“I think our citizens have a consensus that conservation is important and they are willing to abide by it. So I think the conversation is — how do you enforce it?” Jordan said.

Increasing demand, increasing water rates

The water restrictions, which went into affect in June 2013 as part of the city’s drought plan, were not accounted for in the fiscal year 2013 budget, said Gugliuzza, leading department officials to use extra cash set aside for debt service and capital projects to pay the bills. The department ultimately finished the year in the black.

In the budgets for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, however, officials are taking into account that the watering restriction will be permanent and not a reaction to a drought, Gugliuzza said. The city is also gradually changing water rates to address conservation and the rising cost of water.

About 80 percent of the water department’s costs are out of the department’s control — personnel and raw water costs — and approximately 20 percent are variable — such as electricity and chemicals for water treatment, said Janet Hale, the water department’s finance manager.

Revenues are the exact opposite.

In fiscal year 2013, 83 percent of overall revenue was based on the amount of water used and 17 percent was based on fixed fees, depending on the size of the meter. Residential customers typically use less water and have a smaller meter, while commercial users will need more capacity.

To deal with that uncertainty, the city began a five-year plan to shift more revenue to the fixed-base fee so they are less reliant on the “volatile” nature of user consumption, Hale said.

For the smallest water meter, which is 5/8 of an inch, the 2013 flat fee was $7.50 a month, but rose to $9 in 2014. For the largest water meter, which is 10 inches, the flat fee rose by $281.25.

In fiscal year 2014, 19 percent of water revenue is fixed and that number will rise to 25 percent by fiscal year 2018 as part of the five-year plan, Hale said.

Water rates also go up in stages as residents use more water, which is a conservation effort, said Gugliuzza. Though the city raised water rates in 2014, those using the least amount of water did not see an increase.

“Water rates are expected to rise for the foreseeable future and we must take action to control those costs,” said Mayor Betsy Price during her State of the City Address on Feb. 13.

“Conservation is one of the cheapest forms to keep the water supply strong, but it is not the only solution, and we have to think with our partners at the TRWD [Tarrant Regional Water District] and the rest of the region about innovative solutions to encourage everyone to help us meet our future water needs,” Price said as she announced plans for more conservation efforts.

A statewide problem

Jordan, also president of the Texas Municipal League, said water conservation is an issue for the entire state.

Proposition 6 which passed in the November election authorizes the state to transfer $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to fund projects in the State Water Plan.

The money will be used to fund rural and municipal water projects, and projects related to conservation and reuse.

With the state’s population expected to double in 40 years, water shortages are a grave concern, Jordan said.

“Water and transportation are two of the key elements we have to be aware of for future growth in the state of Texas,” Jordan said. “Water has to be a concern for all of us, for the future of our children and our grandchildren.”

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