The right thing isn’t always the popular thing.
At a packed public hearing Thursday night, many Ammon residents expressed frustration with the shift to metered water. Though those frustrations in many cases have real roots, the city has made not only the right decision but the inevitable one. It’s taking the steps needed to face a simple reality: We live in a desert where water is scarce.
Idaho Falls should follow suit.
Metering ends a what economists call a “free-rider problem” that exists with an unmetered water system.
All water systems charge users as a whole enough to pay for water plus necessary system maintenance. In a metered system, maintenance costs are split equally in a flat fee, and the cost of water is divided among water users in proportion to how much they use. So in an unmetered system, a poor person on a fixed income with a small yard pays more so that a wealthy person with a large lawn can pay less. A person who uses 5,000 gallons a month pays the same as a person who uses 1 million, though they impose vastly different costs on the system.
In a metered system, everyone pays for what they use. Want a giant always-green lawn? That’s fine. You just have to pay for it yourself instead of forcing your less well-off neighbors to carry your weight.
An additional benefit of a metered water system is that it encourages water conservation, something that is vital now and will become only more pressing in the future.
Eastern Idaho is a desert which has the great luck of being dissected by the mighty Snake River and of lying over the massive East Snake Plain Aquifer. When the population was small, those resources seemed limitless. That’s no longer the case.
The aquifer was artificially enlarged by massive flood irrigation in the first half of the 20th century. At mid-century, groundwater pumping became more economical, leading to extensive issuance of new groundwater pumping rights. But then farmers began the transition toward using more efficient sprinkler systems, causing the aquifer to shrink back toward natural levels.
Slowly, downstream water users began to run out of the water they depended on. And many Magic Valley irrigators have water rights that are senior to most of the groundwater rights that supply municipal water in eastern Idaho. There hasn’t been a crisis yet, but there have been several close calls within the last five years.
Eastern Idaho cities have come dangerously close to curtailment during water calls issued by Magic Valley water users with senior water rights. A curtailment wouldn’t be the end of the world — under a curtailment, you could still drink the water from your tap and bathe, for example. But many businesses could be cut off entirely and not a drop could be used to water a lawn or garden.
In an unmetered system, nobody has any incentive to conserve. A metered system, by contrast, rewards those who find ways to use less with lower bills.
Idaho Falls officials should take note. Ammon has done the right thing, the inevitable thing, but it comes at the cost of significant public blowback.
Idaho Falls, the largest city in the region, has seriously lagged behind its counterparts. The longer the delay, the harder it will be when the inevitable decision to install meters is made.