To understand our water bill, we need to understand what DC Water does.
The monthly bills would be a lot simpler if all DC Water did was supply us with clean water and take the waste water away from our homes and businesses. It does far more than that.
Waste water comes in two forms: that which is piped away from our homes and businesses, and that which falls as precipitation and makes its way into our streams and rivers. We ratepayers are paying for efforts to control the latter too.
The end destination for that water flow means we are also, indirectly, paying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed, whose overseers recently celebrated near-record water quality.
In our neighborhood, storm drains capture most of our stormwater runoff before they head to Rock Creek via the Soapstone and Melvin Hazen valleys. Here we are lucky to have separate sewage and stormwater systems. Other parts of DC have a combined system. When it rains too heavily, they both overflow, and fecal matter and pollutants end up being emptied into our streams and rivers.
The EPA’s clean water regulations require DC Water to address this. DC Water is building new tunnels to hold this mixed water and slowly release it to be treated at Blue Plains when it has the capacity. Another method is to slow or collect excess stormwater and prevent it from overwhelming the sewers to begin with.
Under a 2015 agreement with the EPA, DC Water aims to reduce combined sewer overflow volume by 96 percent system-wide in part via green infrastructure. The agency is providing funding for green roofs, roof and rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns, and permeable pavement. Wilson High School is among the buildings making use of captured water, called gray water, in toilets.
DC Water sees green infrastructure as a good investment and a less expensive option than building tunnels. This may mean that our water bills may not escalate as quickly.
Now, let’s look at the fees in the water bill.
There are two determinants that impact the fees charged in our water bill – the amount of water we use and the amount of impervious surface throughout the city.
The amount of water we use is measured by our water meters, which are in the process of being replaced. These meters provide the usage readings (labeled ACT) on which part of your bill is based. An estimated reading will be provided on your bill if your meter is not working or cannot be read.
The chart at the top of your bill states your meter number, size and the read dates (prior and current) and the reading on each of those dates. Then comes the usage, in “CCF” or 100 cubic feet of water usage. This is what determines many of your fees.
The fees from top to bottom:
Meter Fee: This is like paying rent for the use of the meter.
Water System Replacement Fee: This for replacing aged water mains and pipes, some of which are eight decades old or older, and well beyond the age where they should be replaced. The fee is based on meter size and average flow. We see this money at work in our neighborhood with the recently completed Brandywine Street project, a similar project on 29th Street, and on Springland Lane and Idaho Avenue.
Water Services Lifeline and Standard Residential Rates: These are based on water usage.
Sewer Services: For the use of the system that takes the waste water away.
Clean River: This pays for stormwater management, including storm sewers and green infrastructure. It is determined by the amount of impervious service on your lot, including rooftops, paved driveways, patios, and parking lots. Learn more.
DC Government Fees: PILOT (Payment-In-Lieu Of Taxes) and ROW (right of way) are based on usage, and the stormwater fee based on impervious surface. These are pass-throughs to the city for DCWater stormwater and sewage infrastructure running through public space.
Our water bill pays for our usage and cleaner rivers. But is this enough? Can our water system, supported by this fee structure, withstand the continuing impacts of climate change and population growth? Government climate scientist Virginia Burkett told Washingtonian magazine that we’ll see even more flooding at Metro stations, the DC waterfront because rainfall is rising and the land is sinking. Burkett also predicts that by mid-century, we may not even have enough water to meet demand from a growing population.
So that leaves me with the question, what else should we be doing?
If you have questions, attend the DC Water town hall meeting for Ward 3 on Tuesday, April 3rd. It will be at the UDC Student Union (4200 Connecticut) in Ballroom A from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Council member Mary Cheh and DC Water’s interim general manager, Henderson Brown, will be on hand “…to address resident questions and concerns on other topics such as water quality, water conservation, wastewater treatment, construction projects, infrastructure maintenance and emergency repairs, community outreach, DC Clean Rivers Project, employment opportunities, and billing.” Here’s the list of town hall meetings by ward.
And you can sign up to testify when the DC Water board of directors holds its annual public rate hearing on May 9, at 6:30 p.m., at 777 North Capitol Street, NE. Here are the proposed rates for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.