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Illinois’ water withdrawal from Lake Michigan was limited to 2.1 billion gallons per day by a 1967 Supreme Court decision. Population growth is already straining groundwater resources in the Chicago area, forcing inland suburban communities to turn to Lake Michigan.


City looks to dispel ‘myth’ that water meters raise bills

by Chris Bentley
March 17, 2011


Imagine if your electricity bill wasn’t based on how much energy you used each month, but on the number of windows in your apartment.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

While many of them don’t know it, more than 300,000 Chicagoans pay water bills based on the width of their buildings and the height of their home in stories. What doesn’t factor in? The number of people living in that home, the total size of the building in square feet or the amount of water actually used.

Logan Square resident Chris MacFarland is one of 4,500 Chicagoans who had a water meter installed under the Department of Water Management’s promotional MeterSave program. MeterSave offers a seven-year guarantee to Chicagoans who volunteer for a meter that their water bill will not exceed the rate they would have paid otherwise.

MacFarland said when he saw the 80 percent reduction in his water bill, he thought it was a mistake.

But the meter, which lets the city bill MacFarland based on his water usage, changed more than the bottom line.

“It really has reinforced my perception of water as an essential resource. It was kind of like a video game at first. I would take a shower and then run downstairs to look at the meter, flush a toilet, wash some clothes,” he said.

Some climate change models predict much of the Midwest will get more extreme rain events, boosting overall precipitation but giving way to alternate periods of flooding and prolonged drought.

So the prospect of water shortages may be a concern to some, but “It’s not staring people in the face like it is in Los Angeles,” said Andrea Putz of the Department of Water Management.

In New York and California, state mandates pushed water meter installation. In Illinois, meters are voluntary for many residential customers.

“It seems like such a small thing to do, but if a lot of people get them it really does make a big difference,” Putz said. The Department of Water Management estimates just metering existing ratepayers could save more than 30 million gallons per day by improving the city’s ability to detect leaks.

And it sends a clear financial signal to consumers that conservation is valuable. “If you keep the awareness in the back of you mind, you will always look for ways to cut usage. And it's not such a big effort,” MacFarland said. Just turning off the water while hand washing dishes has a noticeable impact, he added.

Water rates have climbed steadily in recent years, to the chagrin of rate-payers. But at less than half a penny per gallon, water is still very cheap, said Jan Beecher of Michigan State University.

“But try telling that to your customers.” Beecher and other public policy experts point out that some of the low-hanging fruit for energy conservation is in water.

Proposals for water metering in Chicago date back to 1900. It’s not hard to imagine how the originators of Chicago’s water billing system might have glanced out over the expanse of Lake Michigan and concluded that their city would never go thirsty.

But population and individual consumption of water have exploded since the city’s early days. According to WaterFootprint.org, the average U.S. citizen uses almost 650,000 gallons of water each year. Much of that is in the form of “virtual water” — water used to produce the goods and services we use.

Illinois’ water withdrawal from Lake Michigan was limited to 2.1 billion gallons per day by a 1967 Supreme Court decision.

Population growth is already straining groundwater resources in the Chicago area, forcing inland suburban communities to turn to Lake Michigan. One hundred and twenty-five suburbs already buy water from Chicago and more may need the water. But the state is nearing the usage limit for lake withdrawals. 

About 180,000 of the city’s 500,000 accounts are already metered, but this 36 percent of water-users accounts for 80 percent of water rate revenue — large buildings and industrial users were metered early, for obvious economic reasons.

Still, MeterSave and other voluntary programs looking to close the gap struggle with a widely believed “myth” that meters will make rates go up, Putz said. Average water bill savings have been 50 percent for the 4,500 homes metered under the program. But even with MeterSave’s 7-year guarantee, only 10,000 customers have volunteered — about 2 percent of the unmetered population in Chicago.

MacFarland said most of his neighbors tried to dissuade him from MeterSave, saying his bills would go up. “Now I'm happy to tell them about my super low water bills,” he said.