When it comes to municipal sanitary sewer service, user rates vary greatly. From neighboring rural communities to larger metropolitan areas across the state, leaders are looking to balance environmental responsibility with affordability in a manner that protects the integrity of our water sources and provides safe, sustainable wastewater treatment options for generations to come.
In January of 2019, MSA asked communities across the state of Wisconsin to participate in our ninth annual Wisconsin Sewer User Charge Survey — or, as we like to call it —the “Cost of Clean” survey. Survey forms were distributed to 816 individual and general Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit holders, of which 326 responded. Some of these permit holders operate their own wastewater treatment facilities (76%), while the others (24%) operate sanitary collection systems and send their waste to another community for treatment. The goal of the survey was the same: collect, analyze and report the cost of sanitary sewer service in Wisconsin, and as a result, provide municipalities with the ability to compare their current and proposed sewer rates with others. The knowledge gained may then be used to inform the decision-making process, choosing the best route to a healthy and sustainable future for their utility systems.
While communities may have control over some factors that influence sewer rates, they are largely at the mercy of their economy of scale. Larger communities generally consume a greater amount of water, yet they generally pay less for their sewer service. Here, the economy of scale works greatly to the advantage of more densely populated areas. The highest sewer rates, on the other hand, occur in municipalities with populations generally between 1,001-2000 residents, with the average difference in monthly sewer cost between the smallest and largest communities being slightly above $17 per month.
Treatment type also plays an influential role in determining sewer charges, as does the age of the treatment facility, the use and cost of sewer connections and/or impact fees, the amount of time passed since the last rate increase, and additional charges due to industries and hauled waste operations.
Affordability and funding
Over the years covered by this report, funding for wastewater treatment projects has been unpredictable. Major funding agencies often rely upon a measure of the affordability of sewer service for determining grant eligibility. A commonly used affordability threshold is 2% of a community’s Median Household Income (MHI). In the Wisconsin study’s findings, however, we found that only 0.3% (1 out of 326) of communities’ rates were at or above 2% of current MHI (based on actual sewer usage), suggesting that the “affordability threshold” used by some agencies may not be a realistic expectation.
Grant funding is seeing a slight increase as of late, with new dollars available from three major state and federal agencies. However, municipalities are having a difficult time relying on these sources for funding their wastewater facility improvements, which will continue to put pressure on municipalities to raise their rates sufficiently to fund an increasing share of the cost of providing sewer service.
The true cost of clean
According to the EPA, as a percentage of household income, U.S. households pay less for water and wastewater than other developed countries. There is a misconception that water is — and always will be — readily available and relatively inexpensive. As a highly demanded and dwindling natural resource, that may not always be the case. The true cost of clean water means something much bigger. It means pricing water and wastewater services to accurately reflect the true costs of providing high-quality water and sewer services to consumers. These costs will protect the integrity of the resource, but also boost the long-term vitality of the system infrastructure and allow communities to aptly plan for upcoming repairs, rehabilitation and replacement of those systems.
Some communities have made a larger commitment to being environmentally responsible in this matter, while others do all they can just to be affordable to their users. Is there a means to make the rate system more fair and balanced across the state? There is no easy answer. Perhaps only when the true cost of providing clean water and reliable wastewater treatment services is reflected in the user fees will the rate-paying public appreciate the value of these resources.
For more information about the survey, or how your community can better balance usage rates with usage responsibility, contact Tom Fitzwilliams.