The interpretation of Bismarck’s new water rates has been a bit murky, according to Michelle Kose, the city's director of utility operations, who has been making an effort to lessen the confusion.
The city commission, last fall, approved the new rates, which aim to help Bismarck overcome a projected shortfall in its water services. In 2019, water is expected to cost the city $19 million, with a revenue flow of $18 million with the old rates.
The new water usage tier structure for single-family households is as follows, listing units used followed by price per unit: 0 to 4, $1.42; 5 to 8, $2.87; 9 to 18, $5.29; 19 to 24, $6.68; and 25 and above, $7.63.
“There are a few who believe all water usage in a month is billed at the highest tier, which is not accurate,” Klose said. “All residential customers have access to the water at the rates in each tier.”
A single-family household that uses 24 units of water per month, for example, would pay $1.42 per unit for the first 4 units, $2.87 per unit for the next 4 units, $5.29 per unit for the next 10 units and $6.68 per unit for the last 6 units, for a total monthly bill of $110.14.
“Why does the city have a higher rate for its tier of 25 units and above?” is a question being frequently asked of the city in recent days, according to Klose.
During the winter and times of indoor-only water use, Bismarck uses about 200 million gallons of water per month. During the summer — May through September — that number can jump to more than 600 million for lawn irrigation alone, according to Klose, who says infrastructure has to be built and maintained to accommodate the higher usage.
“Running out of water isn’t an acceptable option because we have to assure safe drinking water and fire protection at all times,” she said. “So we have to invest in a system large enough to be able to make three times more than we typically sell … we then are faced with only having three to five months of higher use to recoup those costs.”
Stantec’s recent study of the city’s utility operations enterprise fund, as well as user rates involving the water, sewer and stormwater divisions, determined peak demands are being largely driven by customers who irrigate heavily, according to Klose. She said the city adjusted its tiers to recover more costs from these users.
The new rates will prevent low-irrigation customers from “subsidizing” high-irrigation customers in the future, she said, noting the city’s aim is not to restrict usage.
“Fairness dictates that the ones who are using way more water in a very short time are the ones who should pay for it,” Klose said. “Low-irrigation customers will be better off under this system, and customers who still want to irrigate heavily can still make that choice.”
Roberta D. Nelson, who lives in south Bismarck, was one of about 7,600 homeowners receiving letters from the city last month outlining the newly implemented water rates with a warning that “excessive” lawn watering this summer would cost more.
Bismarck accessed its water use monitoring system, Water Analytics, to determine which households used 19 units — about 14,000 gallons — or more of water during the month of August last year, and mailed each a letter with a table comparing 2018 and 2019 costs for the same amount of water.
The Nelson household used 30 units of water in August at a cost of $86.90. This year, the same amount of water will cost $155.92, the letter warned.
Living on a fixed income, Nelson says it was “tough” to learn of the increase, especially since she takes pride in being a good neighbor.
“Most of us in our neighborhood try to keep our property values up and be good neighbors,” she said. “We try to keep our yard presentable. We’ve tried to keep things healthy. When you have new plants, you have to water them.”
During the summertime, Nelson says she likes to sit outside and enjoy the fruits of her labor, which includes green grass.
“In North Dakota, we just have such few precious days where we can be outside and enjoy the nice weather,” she said. “People like to sit outside. It’s just relaxing out there.”
The city has suggested planting grass varieties that are less thirsty, which Nelson says is a good option for new developments, not for well-established yards such as hers.
Other suggestions by the city include mulching, installing smart controllers on sprinkler systems and not watering when rain is forecasted.
“If you change some of your usage behavior and think about overseeding your yard with something less thirsty than bluegrass … you’d probably be able to lessen the sting,” said Bismarck City Commissioner Nancy Guy during the April 23 meeting of the board.
Nelson says she feels the water rate increase should’ve been gradual.
“Why not increase it percentage wise — a little bit each year?” she said.
On more than one occasion, Klose's apologized for the “shocking nature” of the letter mailed out by the city.
“I understand, when we sent the letter out, it was trying to be very direct to let water users know before we started the watering season,” she said, noting August 2018 was a very dry month resulting in high water usage. “Our letter did not contain everything it probably should have.”