January storms propelled California from a state of water scarcity to one of water optimism.
The drought outlook in much of the state has improved thanks to continued and steady precipitation, and with more than two months left in the wet season, snowfall in the Central Sierra mountains of California has already reached 100% of the average for an entire year.
So with water being more readily available than previously anticipated, does that mean consumers should expect to see a cheaper water bill? Representatives for California’s largest water utility say, probably not.
Kevin McCusker is the manager of community affairs at California Water Service, aka Cal Water. He says the price of water itself is only a fraction of the equation when determining how much consumers pay for their water.
The bulk of the water bill is comprised of operational costs, including capital improvements, McCusker says. The cost of treating the water and paying employees makes up another massive chunk of the overall cost.
“We don’t own the water, but we own the pipes and the treatment facilities that make the water drinkable and then get the water into your house,” McCusker said.
In short, consumers are paying for water service, not just water on its own.
Many different factors contribute to the overall cost of water, including where you live and whether the bulk of your water comes from surface water, which has been energized and reloaded by recent rain, or groundwater, which tends to take much longer to replenish.
Cal Water pays wholesale water providers and those costs are negotiated months and sometimes years in advance. In some areas, depending on the utility and the water source, only 22% of the total bill goes to the purchase of the water itself. The process is highly regulated and monitored by the California Public Utilities Commission.
And those water prices aren’t set months out by accident or cruelty. McCusker says those prices reflect the long view versus the weekly fluctuation of the state’s reservoirs levels.
“The outlook right now is better than anticipated,” McCusker said. “But we’ve been in a drought for multiple years. And so you know one wet January is not necessarily going to fix the long-term problem.”
McCusker cites December of 2021 when California’s snowpack was near 174% of normal for that time of year. By April, much of that snow melted and California continued to slog through a prolonged drought, seeing little benefit from the snowpack buildup.
“Everybody should be measured, extremely measured in how they approach these things because water scarcity is is a long-term issue for California to wrestle with,” McCusker said. “And the scarcity of that water and the cost of treating it and moving it around is a long-term issue as opposed to an episodic issue.”
While no discounted water might be unwelcome news to many Californians, McCusker said those struggling to pay their monthly bills have options. Most utilities, including Cal Water, have customer assistance programs to help those struggling to pay their monthly bills.