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Conserve more; pay more! 

I have a real black thumb. Plants just seem to commit suicide when I’m around. In fact, even my plastic plants die, probably because I don’t pretend to water them. So I’m feeling right at home in California’s drought. Now it’s not just my plants that are dead; it’s everyone’s. 

And why? Because according to experts, plants need water, and Gov. Jerry Brown commanded us to use less of it. 

But how can I possibly cut back any more? My patch of lawn is already browner than my Underoos’ skid marks. I barely shower. I mostly drink beer, because water? Yuck! Do you know what fish do in that stuff? Disgusting! Sure, I use a little water to boil my ramen, which I eat over the sink to avoid dishes. I don’t wash my car. I don’t flush when it’s just pee. If I used any less water I’d be one of my dead plants, so why oh why am I being punished by SLO city, which is about to raise my water rates because—get this!—my fellow citizens and I have conserved too much?

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Oh, the irony! Punished for being frugal!

It’s all sadly true. Because people have used less water and are projected to use even less in the future, the SLO City Council just voted to increase water rates starting July 1 and then again on July 1, 2016. You see, less water usage means less revenue: less money for maintenance, scheduled upgrades of the city water reclamation facility, and debt service on outstanding loans from infrastructure projects like the Nacimiento Water Project. Not that the lake, currently at 26 percent capacity, has much water. 

And this isn’t even the first time SLO Towners have seen their rates hiked because they’ve conserved too much. It also happened in 2011 when decreased usage led to a $1-million shortfall.

Meanwhile, my douchey rich neighbors with their massive expanses of lush green lawns and fancy-shmancy ornamental horticulture and cherub fountains with tinkling pee-pees will barely notice the increase. Because of the rate increase structure, we who have used the least will feel pain the most. Unfair!

Is it any wonder 730 water customers protested the current increases? I mean, sure, more like 7,000 written protests were needed for California’s Proposition 218 (1996) to kick in and actually stop the increases, but even those of us too lazy or ill-informed to pen an epistle can certainly sympathize with the idea of being punished for conserving, especially considering that a) some city employees just got juicy new raises, and b) on the very same agenda, the council voted to refurbish the city utilities office to the tune of $175,000, which by my calculations would pay my douchey lawn-loving neighbor’s $400 per month water bill for the next 35 years.

OK, to be fair, the city employee salary increases are a red herring—a separate issue from water rates—and that $175,000 is coming out of last year’s budget leftovers. But I’m guessing that’s small relief to fiscal conservatives who believe any leftover budget money should be used to lower water rates instead of, you know, repainting and carpeting a government office in a new shade of drab office green. Of course, according to Utilities Director Carrie Mattingly, there was apparently a raw sewage spill on the office carpet (again, irony in a utilities office), but what does that have to do with a new kitchen sink, which is also being upgraded? Anyway, let’s get back on track and look at the big picture.

As Utilities Business Manager Brigitte Elke said, less water consumption doesn’t mean less need to maintain our water fund and infrastructure. If we get some rain next winter, the drought surcharge could be rescinded. The reality, however, is that the era of cheap water may be coming to a close, and maybe that’s good. California’s been living on borrowed time. Here on the Central Coast, we live in a semi-arid climate, but for years we’ve been acting as if free water just falls from the sky or something. Maybe it’s time to live within our water means.

Plus, in reality, city water is a phenomenally good deal. I know it’s summer and school’s out, kids, but let’s do some math! According to the city, the average water customer uses 4,488 gallons a month, or 147 gallons a day. If you’re an average user, you currently pay $100.95 a month, or 2.2 cents a gallon. Next month that will jump to 2.5 cents a gallon, and next year 2.6 cents a gallon. The average cost of a gallon of bottled water is around $3.

Now, if we could get my douchey neighbors to water their lawns with bottled water, either Nestlé® would be even richer, or my neighbors would get on board the conservation bandwagon and maybe my stock in green grass paint (Yes, it’s a thing!) would go up. Then I might be able to afford to go out for ramen.

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