If you're suffering from lawn envy, take comfort in this: Your neighbor is paying a small fortune to keep his grass, flowers and trees looking like May in Ireland.
In some cases, Springs residents' water bills are more than four times what they were a year ago.
With June temperatures running 108 percent of normal and rainfall at just 15 percent of normal, Colorado Springs Utilities' customers guzzled 3.4 billion gallons of water from June 1 through 27. That's way more than the 2.5 billion for the same period last year and rivals the 3.45 billion used in June 2001, the year before drought forced conservation measures.
Springs customers are among the lowest per-capita water users on the Front Range, thanks to watering restrictions imposed during the drought and water-saving techniques since embraced by the community, such as Xeriscaping and low-flow appliances. But those who reacted to June's heat, wind and skimpy rainfall by pouring water on their gardens and lawns got a big surprise in their mailboxes recently.
Not only did higher usage push bills up, but they're paying more for water than two years ago. In February 2009, rates went up 41 percent, but the change went largely unnoticed last year when rain drenched the area and helped sustain lawns. Then, on Jan. 1, another 6 percent hike kicked in, including a per-day customer charge.
A $600 headache
The owner of a multi-apartment building north of downtown was stunned when she got a $600 water bill.
"She called me and said, 'I think we have a leak,'" says Mary Jo Leech, who manages the property. "Last summer, our highest bill was $130."
The 10,000-square-foot building's grounds are expansive and dotted with mulberry and boysenberry bushes, trees and hedges. Without watering, the property uses 160 cubic feet of water per day. On irrigation days, use jumps to 880 cubic feet.
That's a bunch, considering the average residential customer uses 1,600 cubic feet, or 12,000 gallons, per month.
One factor is beyond our control: the weather. Colorado Springs recorded its fifth-warmest June since record-keeping began in 1894, with an average (counting days and nights) temperature of 69.6 degrees — 5.2 degrees hotter than normal, according to the High Plains Regional Climate Center. Aggravating the situation was the absence of precipitation.
"Of course, cost is associated with use, and with hotter temperatures, customers are using more water, most likely to irrigate," Utilities spokeswoman Patrice Quintero says in an e-mail.
A household that used 1,600 cubic feet in 2009 paid $55.18. If usage goes to 3,200 cubic feet this year, the tab is $138.48. (To calculate your own bill, go to csu.org/wa/rate/water_ratecalc.jsp?rate_code=W1R.)
Also keep in mind that water rates are tiered, meaning the more you use, the higher per cubic foot you're charged. For up to 999 cubic feet, you pay 2.24 cents per cubic foot; from 1,000 to 2,499 cubic feet, you pay 4.18 cents; and for more than 2,500 cubic feet, the rate is 6.17 cents.
"The tiered rates are designed to encourage conservation," Quintero notes.
If you think what's happened to rates is bad already, brace yourself. Two consecutive 12 percent annual rate hikes begin next year, and four more are expected to follow, doubling water bills by 2016.
While a chunk of the rate hikes will fund the $2.3 billion Southern Delivery System pipeline project from Pueblo Reservoir, they also will pay for system maintenance, which includes a 20-year water main rehabilitation program involving a quarter of the city's 1,900-mile water pipe network, Quintero says.
But hold on. There is good news:
First, there's little to no chance for rationing this summer, because June's usage averaged 127.4 million gallons per day, well below the system's capacity of 200 million gallons per day, and nowhere close to the record 182.4 million gallons set on July 7, 2001. Storage stands at 90.5 percent above the long-term average, Quintero says.
Second, while rainfall through June 30 was 3.57 inches, only 44 percent of normal, latest forecasts call for above-average precipitation through September.
Sticker shock led Leech to cut back on watering, hoping the grass doesn't die. Any plans to replace the grass with gravel? "At this point, no," she says.