Liquid trouble: Sinking water means rising costs

When Belmont resident Jenny Mead opened her August-to-September water bill, she got a pleasant surprise: her water use had dropped from 1,570 cubic feet at the same time last year to just 190 cubic feet this year, bringing her bill down from $35.43 to $5.96.

"One of my friends asked me, 'What time of year do you bathe, Jenny?'" Mead laughs.

But good news for conservation-minded water customers like Mead is bad news for the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, which sells water to both the city and county utilities.

Larry Tropea, executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority, says, "We're taking a look at the budget situation."

That might be putting it mildly.

Before the drought even hit home, the RWSA had already rung up a massive deficit– nearly a million dollar shift in the budget.

According to finance director Lonnie Wood, a projected surplus of nearly $180,000 turned into a $689,000 deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Then, less than two months after the start of fiscal year 2003, came mandatory water restrictions. With car washes' taps off, restaurants serving on paper plates, and gardeners watching their foliage shrivel, water usage has slumped nearly 40 percent since July, according to Richard Defibaugh, RWSA's water department manager.

Purchases of water/sewer account for 100 percent of the RWSA's annual income– budgeted to top $12 million this year so it doesn't take a CPA to realize that the local water factory is facing financial ruin.

Unless it has the power to raise rates– and pass the pain on to consumers– which it does.

"Rates will have to rise," says Tropea.

Earlier this week, the board met (after presstime), so the rate hike may already be the talk of the town. It'll have a big impact on the two water resellers.

"When the volume goes down, unit cost will have to go up to meet those costs," says Bill Brent of the Albemarle County Service Authority, one of the resellers.

The other purveyor is Charlottesville Public Service. "I'm afraid we're going to have to do what we have to do," says Rita Scott, Charlottesville's finance director.

For the county, the drought follows another recent water crisis: the 1999 closing of the ConAgra plant, which was the county's top water customer at the time. A frozen foods company that washed vegetables and chicken carcasses all day long, Con-Agra shut its doors– and went from buying eight percent of all county water in fiscal 1999 to using zero almost overnight.

"We weathered that storm three years ago," says Brent. If ConAgra had closed down 20 years ago? It would have been "a staggering blow," he says. But county growth has made up the difference in the intervening years.

Drought conservation, however, may end up being that staggering blow. Depending on the size of the rate hikes, customers like Jenny Mead may soon see their savings on future water bills flushed right down the drain.