There might be restrictions on how San Diegans use water, but there aren’t actually restrictions on the amount of water we can use.

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You can use all you want and are willing to pay for. Doesn’t that seem ridiculous during a drought? Blame the water department’s pricing model.

So long as a typical homeowner avoids the banned uses of water – running an ornamental fountain or overfilling the swimming pool, for example – he or she can still waste 374 gallons a month and it’s neither unlawful nor costly. It will only cost about $2 or so. Waste 1,000 gallons and it might cost a little over $6.

On the other hand, if you conserve 374 gallons, you’ll save around $2 a month on your bill. Does that incentivize anyone to conserve? I don’t think so.

Here’s the problem. Water isn’t priced in a way that encourages conservation, and the water department’s base fees for water and sewer services only exacerbate the problem. They total almost $70 per bimonthly, single-home bill, which for some households actually exceeds the costs of water consumption and sewer use.

Politicians talk a lot about the need to conserve. They speak of community obligations and crisis, but for whatever reason, they don’t roll out changes to price water in a way that would cause anyone but the most cash-strapped among us to conserve. They use regulation, not market forces, so there isn’t much incentive for the most affluent San Diegans – those with huge lawns that might need tons of water – to put much thought into cutting back.

The only way to truly encourage conservation of this essential and finite resource is to price it appropriately such that overuse becomes truly expensive and conservation saves real money.

Further, income from those who want to use water extravagantly could be partially redirected to fund the capital costs of other homeowners who are willing to convert to low-use lawns and appliances. There are some limited rebates now, but none of them come close to covering actual costs, which can take decades to pay off in bill savings. If high water users cover the costs for others who convert to low-use landscaping, and if those people converting see meaningful savings on their bills, we have a chance to really conserve.

How do we do this? One way is to scrap the base fees entirely, bill people solely on water consumption (not estimated sewer use), and price water at progressively escalating rates. Right now water is billed bimonthly in hundred cubic feet amounts, which translates to 748 gallons, starting at $3.64 and topping out at $8.19. (That will change marginally in 2015.)

Instead, why not price it such that, for example, the first 748 gallons is $5, the next is $7, the next is $9, etc., always $2 more than the last. Very low users would pay a very low cost, and even mid-range users could save $30 or more by conserving a tier. Meanwhile, the extravagant users will pay a commensurate cost and pay for the landscape conversions of others.

We can talk all we want about the importance of saving lots of water, but without meaningful costs for overuse and financial rewards for conservation, it isn’t going to happen.

Chris Brewster is a resident of Pacific Beach and president of two nonprofits. Brewster’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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