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“My Water Bills Are Too High – Hey Honey, We’re Out of Bottled Water!”
By Dennis W. Doll
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer
Middlesex Water Company
The older I get, the more it’s apparent to me that “value” is a relative term. Those of us who earn our living providing water service to large populations know full well that relative to just about anything else that touches our daily lives, an adequate supply of clean safe water is at the top of the list.
The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, coupled with the widespread loss of electric power, was a stark reminder that the ability to keep the water flowing in the wake of a natural disaster is critical. Had the water purveyors in the Northeast not been able to maintain any level of reliable service during the storm, the consequence would have been a major public health threat, layered on top of an already extraordinarily dire situation. It is very easy to understand why people largely take their water service for granted. The reality is– as an industry, we have provided the service so reliably, for so long and at a cost that doesn’t come close to many other elements of the household budget.
As a nation, we’re heavily dependent on the flexibility and freedom we enjoy from our vehicles. But, we also routinely gripe about the cost of gasoline.
Ironically, many of us think little of spending $1.50 or more for a 16-ounce bottle of water at the local convenience store which, on a per gallon basis, is more expensive than gasoline. Go figure. In contrast, for less than a penny a gallon, our National Association of Water Companies investor-owned member companies produce billions of gallons of water on a daily basis of comparable, if not better, quality. This comparison doesn’t even begin to illustrate the value this service provides for all our domestic and sanitary needs, for fire protection or for the value to economic stability and growth of our communities. Yet when water purveyors, whether public or private, request an increase in rates of any amount from their governing bodies or their regulators, those requests are generally met with ridicule and strong public opposition.
I get it. None of us likes to see the cost of our utilities increase. Where I think we’re failing is that the public doesn’t understand why increases are needed and may not be confident that the utility would spend the funds requested prudently. I believe there is a dramatic need to better educate the public about how utility services are regulated, why water service costs what it does and how prudent investments in infrastructure ultimately ensure continued reliability and safety now and well into the future.
It’s unfortunate that various consumer watchdog groups fan the flames of mistrust. They do this by making sweeping generalizations that water service delivered by investor-owned entities is deficient as to service and cost relative to our public counterparts. They’ll cite the compensation of the CEO or municipal water department’s Executive Director, or take public financial information out of context to demonstrate how profitable an entity is and make judgments that a rate increase of any amount is not warranted, and on and on.
I argue this behavior is not only irresponsible, but is reprehensible. What is sorely needed is an honest discussion about the various ownership models and the relative advantages and disadvantages of each, which can be vastly different on a case-by-case basis. What is also needed is an honest and open discussion about the critical importance of maintaining healthy utilities, both operationally and financially.
It’s easy to forget that the safe, reliable and relatively affordable water service we all enjoy today, was only made possible through the collaboration of dedicated employees of water purveyors and regulators, over the more than 100-year history of many of our organizations. We owe it to our current customers, as well as to the next generation, to make sure we can maintain safe, reliable service. We help accomplish this by never losing sight of the true “value” of water in our lives, by being open and honest with our customers about our operations and our costs and by not letting those who have other agendas distract the public from the honest truth about their water service.
What about you, do you ever find yourself taking water for granted? Why is that?
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