PLANO, Texas — Have you noticed high water bills at your house?
Community leaders in Plano, Richardson, Garland and Mesquite are saying one reason for that is its residents are collectively paying millions for water they don't use.
Is that true?
This story is about the North Texas Municipal Water District. It provides drinking water to many North Texan suburbs, large and small. The biggest is Plano.
Plano City Manager Mark Israelson told me that because of contract provisions with the Water District, 800,000 residents of Plano, Richardson, Garland and Mesquite have paid $275 million for water they never used. And, by contract, they can't sell it or even give to another community that wants it.
“In a typical year how much water are you leaving on the table?” I asked.
“We're typically leaving four to five billion gallons on the table,” he said.
Four to five billion gallons of unused water?
Plano says the problem is a provision called “Take-or-Pay" That means each year, a city is continually obligated to pay for the maximum amount of water it’s ever used in a year.
For Plano that was 2001. But even though the city is taking four to five billion gallons less these days, it still must pay for the rest.
“In 2001 all cities had the same opportunity to water seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It was really in a growth mode,” Israelson said.
That permanently changed in 2015 when the Water District made a big change to permanently slow the use of water. It asked all cities to enforce twice-a-week watering restrictions, not just during droughts.
“I think our opportunity for water was cut significantly when you go from 7 days a week to twice a week,” Israelson said.
“Because you can never essentially hit that number again if you can only water twice a week?” I asked.
“Correct," Israelson said. "The circumstances and opportunity we had was cut significantly by going from seven to two. It's simple math."
Seventy-five miles north of Dallas, near Bonham, the Water District is building the $1.5 billion Lower Bois D'arc Reservoir. It will add water capacity by flooding about 17,000 acres of land.
The Water District generally gets high marks for its conservation, like twice-a-week watering. But environmentalist Rita Beving says the Take-or-Pay contract discourages additional water conservation at a time when the North Texas population is exploding.
“Why would you ask your residents to do anything when you're going to pay for a certain high capacity of water no matter what?” Beving said.
“You're going to pay for it anyway, why ask your residents for more pain?” I asked.
“In this case, there's been a lot of pain the last number of years. Water rates are going up five to 10 percent every year,” she said.
Between cost of construction, the red tape of regulation and environmental damage, it is incredibly challenging to build a new reservoir in Texas. In fact, Bois D'arc is the first new, major reservoir built in 30 years.
Beving said communities should do whatever they can to avoid new reservoirs.
“Having a better, more efficient structured water rate for cities is going to inspire all those cities to ask all their residents to adopt better and more conservation,” Beving said.
Cities, like Plano, hate the Take-or-Pay contract and want to rewrite it to only pay for the water they use. But 13 cities are party to the contract. The way the contract’s written, they would have to unanimously approve any changes to it. And, unlike Plano, some cities like Frisco and McKinney are growing fast, and generally want all their allotted water.
If the contract were to change, the Planos of the world pay less than the Friscos and McKinneys would probably end up paying more. There’s not much incentive for them to agree to that.
The Water District declined to be interviewed for the story, but its general position is it built an expensive infrastructure based on Plano's needs, and the way Plano pays for that is by buying water.
So, are North Texans paying millions for water they don't use?
Yes, they are.
Is it fair for cities like Plano to want to change the rules in the middle of the game?
But a contract that doesn't adjust to real-world water use and requires a unanimous vote to amend it sets up a situation where communities are not on the same page when it comes to the important task of conserving for the future.
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