New reality: Use less water, but pay more?

We sympathize with Central Coast residents who have excelled at conserving water but are being asked to pay more anyway.

That’s happening in Santa Margarita, where the county public works department is proposing a 32 percent rate increase to make up for a 32 percent drop in revenue attributed to reduced water use. For the average customer, that equates to an increase of $14.30 per month.

And it’s not just Santa Margarita where paying more for less is the new model.

Last month, the San Luis Obispo City Council tacked on a drought surcharge to compensate for revenue “lost” to conservation. Rates also were increased in 2011 for the same reason.

That’s counterintuitive in a consumer culture where we generally pay more when use more, and vice versa.

It’s especially disconcerting to see that principle turned on its head during a drought. Frugal water users should be compensated with lower water bills. Conversely, water hogs should be penalized with higher bills — and fines in egregious cases.

However, there are fixed costs associated with operating a water system — personnel, equipment, utilities, maintenance and replacement are some — and those costs are going to remain, regardless of the amount of water used.

A rate structure that depends on an unsustainable amount of consumption is not going to work; as we move toward a more conservation-minded attitude toward water — as we should — that formula must change.

Supplementing water funds with other revenues to avoid rate increases — a suggestion offered last month by San Luis Obispo City Councilman Dan Carpenter — would provide temporary relief, but what happens if the drought continues?

Even if rainfall returns to normal, do water purveyors really want to encourage a surge in water consumption when they’ve been preaching water-saving appliances and drought-tolerant landscaping?

Of course not. That would be akin to encouraging consumers to buy gas-guzzling cars to generate more gas tax revenue to improve our crumbling highways.

Just as the state Legislature is considering new models for generating revenue for roads — including a $100 highway user fee for owners of electric vehicles — water purveyors also must adjust to consumers’ conservation mindset.

That means doing a better job of ensuring base rates will generate adequate income, and reviewing those rates on a regular basis to avoid sudden, double-digit increases.

Purveyors also need to clearly communicate that customers are paying not just for units of water, but for the delivery of water.

And they must do everything in their power to eliminate waste and hold down expenses, which is what we expect of government in general.

For us consumers, it’s time to recognize that the payoff for conserving water isn’t just monetary.

Knowing we can count on having enough water to flush our toilets, wash our dishes and bathe our babies — something we can no longer take for granted — is an even greater reward.