Wednesday 24 January 2024

Water metering - a small piece of silver buckshot

Chris Parker at Treasury sometimes quips that there are no silver bullets for solving housing in NZ, only pieces of silver buckshot. Basically you've got to do a lot of things to solve the problem; any one of them on their own won't do it. 

I was on RNZ's The Panel yesterday afternoon (here, from around the 11 minute mark) talking volumetric charging for water and water metering. It's come up as a solution for Wellington's increasingly obvious water problems

It's good. But it's only a small piece of silver buckshot. The other bits of shot are more important. 

Currently, Wellington Water manages pipes it doesn't own on what bits of funding it can beg from the councils that own the pipes and set the levies for water. It also currently seems to be terribly managed, with atrocious-sounding costs for repairs. Councils have to give them more money to fix the pipes, but need to be able to trust that it won't just be eaten up by having (purely hypothetically) engineers spend days of paperwork on minor repairs. 

If you added water levies into the mix, it'd be good, but it wouldn't solve the main problem. I love volumetric charging. But if the water agency has limited capacity, and the same kinds of folks fix pipes as put meters onto pipes, I'm not convinced it's the first thing that should be done. 

One great feature of water metering is identifying leaks. Wellington Water cannot keep up with very obvious known leaks. The leak on Tinakore Road that I'd walk by every morning I walked to work for months before Christmas was still there when I got back from Christmas break. Eyeballing it, the volume would be comparable to what might come out of a couple of garden hoses put together, fully open, 24/7. That leak hasn't been big enough to hit their priority list. 

Do you want the next Wellington Water employee fixing leaks like that, or installing meters? How many meters would you have to install before households would reduce water use by an amount comparable to what's flowing out of that one leak? 

The first-order problem is still that the water company doesn't own the pipes or decide on its own charges, subject to ComCom oversight on charging, with ability to back independent debt with water system revenues. 

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