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Local

Water rate increases mulled

After installing a low-flow toilet at a customer's home in Montgomery, Ill. on Friday April 9, 2010, Kevin Bauman, owner of Bauman Plumbing in Batavia, checks the tank to make sure it is working properly. (Rob Winner – rwinner@kcchronicle.com)
After installing a low-flow toilet at a customer's home in Montgomery, Ill. on Friday April 9, 2010, Kevin Bauman, owner of Bauman Plumbing in Batavia, checks the tank to make sure it is working properly. (Rob Winner – rwinner@kcchronicle.com)

On one hand, John Lamb is pleased with the amount of water residents and businesses of his city are saving.

On the other, however, the amount of water being saved has also left Lamb, who oversees the city of St. Charles water and sewer departments, feeling a little anxious.

“It’s funny, in the sense that it’s a double-edged sword,” said Lamb.

“We tell people all the time to conserve water, conserve water. But then we, as the municipality providing the water, suffer because there’s less money coming in to maintain that system.”

In coming weeks, Lamb is poised to recommend to the St. Charles City Council to increase water rates 4 percent. If enacted, the increase would be the third consecutive year in which the city raised its water rates. Last year, water rates increased 3 percent.

And next year, Lamb said, the city would likely increase water rates another 4 percent.

“We need the revenue to keep the system going,” Lamb said.

“Even if no one ever turns on their faucet, there are still costs we have to pay.”

However, St. Charles is not the only municipal water supplier in the region or the country mulling water rate increases.

Across the U.S., cities are considering far greater water rate increases. In some cities, published reports indicate water rates could rise from 25 to 100 percent this year.

Locally, the village of Elburn increased its water rates last month by 30 percent.

Other communities have not laid plans to increase rates, but said they are exploring the possibility.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” said John Dillon, superintendent for water and sewer in Batavia.

“We’re cutting expenses as much as we can because we don’t think this is the kind of economy that we should be raising rates. But it’s something we may need to look at.”

Why is the price of tap water on the rise? The answer, say local water officials, bubbles to the top when examining how much water is being used.

For years, water usage climbed steadily in the fast-growing cities of central Kane County, hitting their peak, generally, from 2005 to 2007.

In the last two years, however, water usage in local communities has dropped off precipitously.

In Batavia, water use dropped from about 980 million gallons used in 2007 to about 860 million gallons in 2009, a decline of more than 12 percent.

And along with the drop in use came a similarly steep drop in revenue, as revenues to the water department declined 9.5 percent from almost $4.2 million in 2007 to about $3.8 million last year.

St. Charles has also seen steep decreases in water usage, as well. In that city, 1.68 billion gallons were pumped in 2007. By 2009, however, the figure had decreased by 10.7 percent to 1.5 billion gallons.

And that, said Lamb, presented the city with revenue problems of its own – revenue problems that the city will likely counter with rate increases.

Lamb and Dillon credit much of the decrease to economic and environmental factors.

While the middle years of the past decade were historically dry years, both 2008 and 2009 were cooler and wetter than normal, they said, allowing residents to use less water to sprinkle grass and other landscaping.

“That was certainly some of it,” Dillon said. “But it’s not even close to explaining all of it.”

Economic factors, such as businesses closing and home foreclosures, also have played a large role.

A recent report from the Denver-based Water Research Foundation found that the sustained recession has bottled up water demand in many areas of the country – particularly in regions hard hit by unemployment and foreclosures.

Fast-growing areas that relied on sustained increase in water demand and connection fees from new homes and businesses have also suffered mightily.

In Elburn, water use has declined 7 percent from 164 million gallons pumped in 2007 to just 152 million gallons last year, forcing the water department to guzzle its cash reserves normally set aside for maintenance and water system improvements to pay bills.

Lamb said St. Charles’ water usage has not been immune from the impact of the recession.

“We’ve seen a number of businesses close down, and those that haven’t, like a lot of our restaurants, are using less water,” Lamb said.

But a third factor – conservation – has also played a big role in suppressing water usage.

Since the mid-1990s, federal law has required new fixtures to be low-flow, meaning they use less water to accomplish certain tasks. Showerheads, for instance, are limited to a flow of 2.5 gallons per minute. And toilets can only use 1.6 gallons per flush, down from the 3.5 gallons that were standard in the 1980s.

Additionally, appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers also use less water than their predecessors.

As more and more of these efficient devices find their way into homes, the amount of water being used has decreased, as well.

Kevin Bauman, owner of Bauman Plumbing in Batavia, said consumers are definitely interested in ways to cut their water use, whether it’s through more efficient faucets or water heaters or appliances such as dishwashers.

“They know it can save them money, so they talk to me all the time about efficiency,” Bauman said.

While initial low-flow or water efficient technology was substandard, Bauman said new devices have improved.

“But I still hear complaints sometimes, from people who tell me it doesn’t do as good of a job cleaning their dishes or clothes or whatever,” Bauman said.

“But it’s the only thing that can be installed right now.”

Cities are also not abating their push for the installation of more efficient fixtures. In Batavia, Dillon said the city will soon launch a program offering incentives to homeowners who replace their toilets with more efficient models.

And in St. Charles, Lamb said the city applauds businesses that find ways to save water. He said industries, which traditionally have used massive amounts of water, have led the way in finding ways to curtail water use.

Manufacturers of plastics products, for instance, have installed closed-loop water systems which recycle water used for cooling machinery and cleaning products and components. Other manufacturers have switched to machinery that cleans products using air, eliminating the need for water entirely.

“It’s definitely good for the Earth, and good for them, because it saves them a ton of money,” Lamb said.

“But it does leave us wondering how we’re going to replace that revenue.”

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