The Top 25 water users in Worcester have consumed a combined 934 million gallons of water and paid $4 million in fiscal 2012. The majority are schools, hospitals and housing projects.
Leading the pack in water consumption is the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMass), which used 138,157,096 gallons of water between July 1, 2011 and April 13, 2012, according to documents GoLocalWorcester obtained from city hall. That’s enough to fill more than 77,000 average-sized, above-ground swimming pools. All that water cost $598,581.50.
List stays steady
The hospital is part of the list GoLocalWorcester compiled, one that has remained relatively steady over the past decade, according to Philip Guerin, director of environmental systems for the Worcester Department of Public Works and Parks (DPWP). Before that, there was a much different make-up, with many large manufacturers accounting for much of the water use.
“What you have on the list now is what’s left of the big manufacturers,” said Guerin. “And colleges have always been up there.”
In fact, as the city – not unlike most other Central Massachusetts towns that once were known for their old mills and manufacturing companies – continues to grow, especially its medical and educational facilities, the top user list has reflected that sea of change.
“Historically, it’s pretty much been that same list for a while. It’s been fairly constant the last 10 years or so,” said Guerin. “There’s been a shift to more institutions, such as colleges and hospitals. Historically, there were a lot more manufacturers. They just don’t exist any more.”
They haven’t all gone the way of the dinosaur, though. The Polar Corporation – recognizable to motorists on Interstate 290 because of its giant, inflatable polar bear and billboard – is the city’s No. 2 largest water consumer. The company used 114,144,800 gallons between July 1, 2011 and April 13, 2012, at a cost of $542,375. Saint-Gobain is No. 4 on the list, using 73,618,160 gallons during that same span at a cost of $323,574.50.
Multiple attempts to obtain comments for this story from UMass were unsuccessful. Representatives from Polar and Saint-Gobain also did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Depending on how much conservation water customers – especially single-family homeowners – plan to do, the quarterly bills could be getting bigger. The city’s biggest water users no doubt are following city councilors as they mull a 6-cent, or 1.8 percent increase, up to $3.31 per hundred cubic feet (748 gallons) of water used for fiscal 2013. The current water rate is $3.25 per hundred cubic feet of water usage. Water rates in Worcester have increased seven straight years.
The current sewer rate is $5.40 per hundred cubic feet of usage (sewer rates are also targeted for an increase, up 12 cents to $5.52 per cubic feet). Sewer rates have gone up nine straight years.
The DPWP is also recommending an increase on the rate for out-of-town users to $3.60 per cubic feet, an increase of 20 cents, or 5.9 percent.
“The cost,” said Guerin, “has definitely gone up.”
One factor in the rise of water rates is a steady decrease in consumption. According to Guerin, water use peaked in 1988 around 27 million gallons a day. That, said Guerin, was the total amount of water coming into the water system. The amount dipped to about 23 million gallons a day before leveling off, Guerin said. It has since dropped to about 22 million gallons a day.
The water and sewer department depends solely on its rates for revenue, since it does not derive tax income. As consumption has declined, officials had no choice but to increase rates to meet the costs associated with providing water and sewer service.
“It is the conundrum of the public water supply profession,” Guerin said. “All the revenue we need comes from water and sewer rates, there are no tax dollars. Our revenue depends on us selling a product. If we sell less, we get less revenue. We’re a fixed cost business.”
That means the annual cost of providing water and sewer service won’t change much. If the money coming in goes down, and costs don’t, the department is left with few options. Worcester Housing Authority (WHA) Executive Director and former Mayor Raymond Mariano said he understands the dilemma facing the DPWP.
“I think Worcester does a reasonably good job,” he said. “The guys and girls doing the work over there know what they’re doing. If rates go up, I don’t worry about it. The city has a certain set of fixed costs that won’t be dramatically lowered. They have to raise that revenue, so there’s a direct correlation between rates and water use. When you go to communities where there are a lot wells, there isn’t that challenge.”
The WHA, which ranks No. 3 on the list of top water consumers, used 82,827, 536 gallons from July 1, 2011 through April 13. While much less than what UMass Medical School has used, it’s still enough water to get more than 6,900 pools ready for summer. The cost for WHA was $359,899.75.
DPWP salaries are also playing a role in the proposed fiscal 2013 water rate increase. According to a report from City Manager Michael O’Brien to city councilors, the pay raises are part of the city’s contractual obligation as part of collective bargaining.
Said Guerin: “The increase in salaries is not a big driver of water rate increases,” Guerin said.
The town of Paxton is in the middle of reviewing its contract with Worcester. As the fifth largest water user – the town has its own water supply, but draws from Worcester to augment its service – Paxton used 97,700 gallons between July 1, 2011 and April 13, 2012. The charge was $360,884. Paxton currently pays $3.32 per cubic foot of water. The community sends some water to Worcester to be treated.
“We’ve been looking for some revision, because they do pull some of the water from our supply,” Paxton Town Administrator Carol Riches said.
Water use in Paxton has declined, she said. Through March, the town used a combined 53 million gallons of water. Through March of fiscal 2011, the customers consumed about 58 million gallons.
“I’ve followed the water consumption since coming on board,” said Riches, who has been in her position for about 16 months. “I’m surprised how much it has gone down.”
Officials in Paxton provide water conservation education, Riches said. Workers also frequently check for leaks, because the infrastructure is “really old,” she said. That step, combined with measures put in place by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection help keep things under control, she said.
“People are conscious of having to pay for (water),” Riches said. “I know in my family, I tell my kids not to take long showers.”
At the WHA, conservation efforts are also paramount.
“As part of an energy conservation program, we pay a considerable amount of attention to it,” said Mariano, citing the installation of low-water consuming toilets and shower heads.
Tips to conserve water
While the DPWP has to make money, that doesn’t mean water conservation isn’t a priority. The city has been fortunate in recent years, however, to have maintained a high capacity in its 10 reservoirs. The last time a water ban was put in effect, for example, was around 1999, according to Guerin, when the city was at 50-percent capacity and outdoor water use was limited to every other day. Other towns, such as Sturbridge, regularly implement outdoor water bans.
“We’re still at 100 percent capacity in our reservoirs,” said Guerin. “If we’re around that level June 1, we can go through the summer without an issue.”
Still, customers can and should take measures to conserve water consumption. For one thing, said Guerin, older buildings and houses that still have old toilets operating on three-and-a-half gallons per flush should upgrade to newer, more efficient models that use just 1.6 gallons per flush. Also, newer, high-efficiency clothes washers can help, although they can be expensive.
The main culprit for wasting water, however, is lawn care.
“Watering your lawn can use as much water as you’ll use the rest of the year with anything else,” Guerin said. “We encourage people to know how to control their irrigation systems. That’s a big one, because people water their lawns all summer and don’t get their bills until September. Then they see their bill has tripled.”