Sub­ur­ban Mary­land fam­i­lies have been get­ting soaked on their wa­ter bills.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO -

Con­sider this sce­nario: Joan, a sin­gle woman, and Mary, a mar­ried mother of three, are buy­ing ap­ples at a lo­cal gro­cery. Joan buys one and pays $1. Mary buys five ap­ples iden­ti­cal to Joan’s, but she’s charged $1.75 each.

Mary asks why she is pay­ing more than Joan. The clerk ex­plains that the store wants to dis­cour­age large pur­chases to en­sure that ap­ples are avail­able for other cus­tomers.

Out­ra­geous? That’s what the Washington Sub­ur­ban San­i­tary Com­mis­sion ( WSSC) does with its vol­ume-based pric­ing pol­icy.

The WSSC sup­plies wa­ter and sewer ser­vice to res­i­dents of Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties. Its vol­ume-based rate sched­ule op­er­ates ex­actly like our hy­po­thet­i­cal store’s ap­ple pric­ing.

Greater daily con­sump­tion re­sults in higher wa­ter and sewer prices for ev­ery thou­sand gal­lons used in a billing pe­riod.

Do the math. The WSSC tells us that the av­er­age per­son uses 70 gal­lons of wa­ter each day. Joan’s house­hold uses 70 gal­lons a day. Joan will pay a com­bined wa­ter and sewer price of $8.55 per thou­sand gal­lons at WSSC’s 20152016 vol­ume rates ef­fec­tive July 1. Mary’s pric­ing, how­ever, will be en­tirely dif­fer­ent. Each of the five mem­bers of her fam­ily also uses 70 gal­lons a day. To­tal daily use in Mary’s house: 350 gal­lons, for which she’ll be charged $15 per thou­sand gal­lons, more than 75 per­cent more than what Joan is charged.

Mary’s to­tal quar­terly bill for vol­ume con­sumed (based on a 91-day quar­ter) is $478. That is $205 more than Mary’s fam­ily would have paid had it been charged at Joan’s rate. Over the course of a year, Mary pays the WSSC about $824 more than Joan and four oth­ers just like her would have paid.

That’s hardly chump change. The WSSC’s rates soak larger fam­i­lies. That is un­jus­ti­fied and un­con­scionable.

The WSSC ar­gues that it en­cour­ages con­ser­va­tion by charg­ing higher-use cus­tomers higher prices. But equally con­serv­ing in­di­vid­u­als of­ten pay dif­fer­ent prices. Some stud­ies cast doubt on the con­ser­va­tion ef­fect of pro­gres­sive pric­ing.

As of 2012, roughly half of wa­ter util­i­ties in the United States charged higher prices on in­cre­men­tal con­sump­tion as wa­ter use in­creased, whereas about 30 per­cent charged a uni­form rate. The re­main­ing util­i­ties charged de­creas­ing prices on higher amounts used. Uni­form prices are sim­ple and vi­able and would not pe­nal­ize larger house­holds. Plus, me­ter­ing use and charg­ing on vol­ume, even at uni­form prices, en­cour­ages wa­ter con­ser­va­tion.

The WSSC’s vol­ume-based rate struc­ture is unique among wa­ter util­i­ties in the United States. It is the only wa­ter util­ity that ap­plies the price in each of its tiers to the en­tire amount of wa­ter pur­chased each quar­ter, in­stead of to the in­cre­men­tal amount be­yond the pre­vi­ous tier. The WSSC’s rate struc­ture re­sults in large spikes in the cost of buy­ing just a lit­tle more wa­ter if that ad­di­tional wa­ter bumps a cus­tomer into a higher rate tier.

The WSSC ar­gues that the higher prices that fam­i­lies such as Mary’s pay for the vol­ume of wa­ter they use are off­set by the WSSC’s fixed ac­count charges. Mary’s fam­ily pays only one set of fixed charges for five peo­ple, whereas Joan pays one set for just one per­son— so, per per­son, Mary pays less. But a fair, fixed charge should not be used to off­set the in­equity of an un­fair charge.

The WSSC is well aware of the flaws in its vol­ume-based rates and how they could be easily cor­rected. It just re­fuses to cor­rect them. The only puz­zle is why this sit­u­a­tion has per­sisted for more than three decades.

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