Water costs rise, consumer bills vary widely by city

One reason water costs more in Marshall, Minnesota is the construction of a new pipeline to carry water 27 miles. Jackson Forderer for MPR News

For something that we often think of as free, water is getting more expensive.

So says the national water news provider Circle of Blue in an annual price survey it conducts of 30 cities.

This year water bills rose about 6 percent on average — faster than inflation — as water utilities pay more for infrastructure, treatment and sometimes even the water itself.

That’s actually a smaller increase than Circle of Blue has found in the past. What’s interesting to me about the survey is the huge variation in water prices around the country — and where Minnesota fits into the pattern.

The price of water is a complex issue, which we got into in a Q&A post a couple months ago.  Because it’s a life necessity, most people would say you shouldn’t have to pay a lot for a basic supply of water. But some argue that the price should be used a means of encouraging conservation.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the most expensive city that Circle of Blue surveyed, a family of four using 100 gallons a day per person (roughly the national average) has to pay more than $150 a month. You might think that makes sense in the drought-stricken West. But in Salt Lake City, Utah, the same amount of consumption costs the family only $27.

Some places with renowned water problems are surprisingly inexpensive –  in Las Vegas, where officials are desperately digging a new pipe to Lake Mead and searching for water rights hundreds of miles from the city, that same consumption costs you $42. Denver, which pulls water over the Rocky Mountains, charges $41. San Antonio, where they will replace your leaking toilet for free to save water, charges under $44 for that amount of water.

Those cities are all charging roughly the same amount as St. Paul, which Circle of Blue didn’t include in its survey. For a family of four using 100 gallons per person per day, the bill in St. Paul is $43.64, according to information from St. Paul Regional Water Services. That’s in the lower third of cities surveyed by Circle of Blue.

Minneapolis, also not included in the survey, charges more, $55.76, according to the city.

Water costs even more in the southwest Minnesota town of Marshall, where geology makes water more scarce than in much of Minnesota. That same 100 gallons daily consumption costs a Marshall family almost $61 a month in the summer, a few dollars less in winter.

Here’s a sample of the monthly bills Circle of Blue calculated for a family of four using 100 gallons per person per day and how three Minnesota cities fit in. You can find lots more data over time and for different levels of consumption at Circle of Blue.

Santa Fe $153.78
Seattle $98.77
San Francisco $92.5
Marshall, MN $60.65
New York $57.28
Minneapolis $55.76
St. Paul $43.64
Las Vegas $42.27
Denver $41.42
Milwaukee $34.65
Salt Lake City $27.19
Sources: Circle of Blue, utilities in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Marshall

Marshall is outstripping the national average in price increases. The rate is up 15 percent from last year and is set to rise another 8.5 percent in January, according to Marshall utilities general manager Brad Roos.

St. Paul saw big increases of nearly 10 percent in 2008 and 2009 and smaller increases since then. Minneapolis rates rose about 1 percent this year.

Neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul has tiered pricing, under which you pay more per gallon if you use more. The New York Times reported this week that in California, more cities are switching to tiered systems as a way to encourage less use.