The Value of Water

By Mark Scharfenaker, Denver resident

English: Images of bottled water

Bottled water (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week I paid $70 for 750ml of a nice single malt scotch whiskey (should fuel me for a few weeks), $45 for 13 gallons of gas (should fuel my car for about a week) and $4 for 3 gallons of bottled water (slaked my thirst during three days of deer hunting in the juniper hills above the Yampa River).

These liquid purchases came to mind when I stumbled on an excellent article in the Winter 2013 issue of CFWE’s Headwaters on the rising price of tap water, where typical rates in Colorado have about doubled in the last decade, according to the author, CFWE staffer Caitlin Coleman.hw cover

That made me pull out my last Denver Water bill, which was $32 for 6,000 gallons of water that arrived at my home every minute of every day in October after its descent from high mountain reservoirs through many miles of conveyance conduit to a modern, secure treatment plant that made it safe to drink (and taste good, to boot!).Was the price too high? Not enough? Just right? What the heck did I get last month for about the price of a bag of dog food?

  • Glorious hot showers every morning at the turn of a valve!
  • Clean teeth and a close shave every day with the flip of a faucet!
  • Countless clean clothes and dishes at the touch of a button!
  • Blessed moisture from our ever-churning humidifier!
  • Many daily flushes of each of two Denver Water-subsidized low flow toilets, at the twist of a handle (how can we even begin to put a fair price on this incredibly undervalued service?)
  • Healthy house plants and happy pets!
  • And the year-round opportunity to fish the aptly-named Dream Stream, a world-class stretch of big-trout tailwater between Aurora Water’s Spinney and Denver Water’s Eleven Mile Reservoirs!

Coleman’s article offers this footnoted factoid that is as apparent as it is flabbergasting: “A gallon of bottled water at Safeway goes for $1.29. For the same price Denver Water delivers 498 gallons directly to customers’ homes.”

She goes on to tell the stories of several Colorado water suppliers working hard to convince customers of the need to raise rates (yes, even when we all do our best to use less) to at least match the cost of providing this critical public health service (yes, in too many cases rates don’t do even that, butting up against the lingering inertia of a public long accustomed to relatively trifling water bills).

It’s sometimes hard to comprehend the public disconnect with the true value of this truly precious natural resource and the truly marvelous benefits we all enjoy daily from its virtually uninterrupted delivery to our sinks, showers and toilets.

What is the value of clean and safe water? It is priceless, of course, not only to us but to the environment. How much should it cost? What is a fair rate structure? What is the acceptable percent of our household income that should be dedicated to it? Is the cost of service strictly a local matter, or should some of those costs be shared by state and federal funding sources?

The answers to these questions are elusive, for sure, but you might get closer to them by visiting a new online resource launched this year by a coalition of a dozen public and private members of the water industry, including the Denver-based American Water Works Association (my long-time employer). Their campaign “aims to educate the public on the importance of clean, safe and reliable water to and from every home and community, and to help ensure quality water service for future generations.”

Learn all about it at The Value of Water website.

Mark  Sharfenaker has been a writer and editor for the American Water Works Association since 1986 and the AWWA website editor since 2008. He moved to Colorado in 1982 after a 10-year stint in Montana, where he earned an undergraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Montana and learned the joys of fly fishing and the wonders of western waters.

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18 Comments

Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Headwaters Magazine, Staff, Water Supply

18 responses to “The Value of Water

    • Sara Herrin

      Great piece. Water is one of the most valuable and finite resource on the planet, and policymakers should incentivize consumers to treat it as such. Your reference to Coleman’s article, stating: “A gallon of bottled water at Safeway goes for $1.29. For the same price Denver Water delivers 498 gallons directly to customers’ homes” is remarkably enlightening. I believe the water industry needs to move away from bottled products and put all resources into making water clean and accessible for all. Although I agree that raising water rates would help individuals in the long-run, it would take a lot of arm twisting in order to convince the public that raising water rates is actually a good thing- since it has been available to little or no cost throughout human existence. Given current global resource needs and a growing population, however, incentives must be provided in order to lower water consumption, particularly in the United States.

  1. Tom Davinrou

    That reference to “Coleman’s article” comes out of the blue. Would be nice to know what he’s talking about.

  2. Jake Miller

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. All the time people are always referring to conserving water and preserving it, but at the same time, I feel its hard to actually make an effort when its difficult to put numbers to how much is being spent on water. I really enjoyed the fact that numbers and cost factors were included in this post, allowing readers to be able to some what relate and be able to compare their own costs of water to the authors. this certainly has opened my eyes to reevaluate my own water costs and how I can limit my own water usage.

  3. Henry Farrell

    Hey great post and thanks so much for sharing the Coleman article. First, it is very enlightening and reassuring to know that the increased cost of water bills is going towards improving water projects in local communities. Secondly, I couldn’t agree more that the current cost of water is more than a fair price. We need it to survive and to have it delivered to our house is a luxury that is often taken for granted. According to water.org , 780 million people on Earth don’t have access to clean water and 3.4 million people die from water and hygiene related causes. With these facts in mind the price of water seems more than fair. Access to water is so common in Colorado that we often forget that it is a modern luxury that not everybody gets to enjoy.

  4. When first reflecting on tis article I really enjoyed the questions he posed because they are extremely important to how water is managed. Water is a resource that many take for granted but with the increase of global warming it is becoming more of a serious concern. Just like Mark Scharfenaker, I do not know how water should be divided up and how much it should cost. However, it is time that this nations citizens seriously think about it. Will that time come in the future that we will no longer be able to leisurely use water as we do today, yes I believe so. I think that the US government will soon have to run a benefit cost analysis on the use of water both municipally and privately to get the most effective prices. Lastly, I thought this article was informative and concise with a nice mention and link to the Coleman article which was a great read.

  5. I enjoyed this blog, as it was an appealing perspective. However, I cannot entirely agree with the message it has. I do agree that we often underscore and even take for granted the wonders of modern water delivery and the luxury it truly is. We do forget how much water we consume daily because it is just there at the twist of a valve. And we even forget how relatively cheap it is, even compared to bottled water. Yet we also seem to forget–as the article seemed to have–that water is one of the few true necessities to life. This, to me, goes beyond the world-wide water crisis. It applies to every living human being regardless of origin, country, nationality etc. Simply because citizens of the United States, and Colorado can afford it, does not mean they should pay for it, let alone be thankful it is so ‘cheap’ and if it were to be a public good, free to everyone, perhaps more people could enjoy a more healthy life leading to more change and good in the world. According to Water.org, one child dies every twenty-one seconds due to water related disease. This is even more evidence as to why it should be free everywhere. If, by chance, you cannot pay for water (even in Colorado) then you are more susceptible to water related disease. Not to mention the idea that raise rates is akin to capitalizing on the world water crisis. Simply by explaining that the process to treat water is complicated and costly and more and more so with the crisis deepening, does not exonerate the moral wrongs of raising rates. As this article said, it is so unbelievable cheap now, what are a few more pennies or dimes? Well, everything, really. Those dimes could be better invested in solving issues (including water, directly or indirectly) than being handed to a government charged with maintaing our well-being regardless for a substance vital to survival and well-being. It is a waste of money, I’d say. It should be free.

  6. When first reflecting on this article I really enjoyed the questions he posed because they are extremely important to how water is managed. Water is a resource that many take for granted but with the increase of global warming it is becoming more of a serious concern. Just like Mark Scharfenaker, I do not know how water should be divided up and how much it should cost. However, it is time that this nations citizens seriously think about it. Will that time come in the future that we will no longer be able to leisurely use water as we do today, yes I believe so. I think that the US government will soon have to run a benefit cost analysis on the use of water both municipally and privately to get the most effective and equitable prices. Lastly, I thought this article was informative and concise with a nice mention of the Coleman article.

  7. Thank you for posting this thought-provoking blog. I have always felt that clean drinking water should be free because we need it to survive and it should be a fundamental human right, just has having clean air to breathe; however, freshwater has become a scarce resource and there is a very limited amount of it available. Having access to as much water as people care for encourages overuse and thoughtless waste of this precious resource. I think that everyone should be allotted access to a certain number of gallons of water per month – enough to satisfy their basic human needs, and any use above that amount should be fairly expensive. Although it should be our birthright to have access to freshwater to drink, it should not be our birthright to be able to use more than our fair share. In addition, there should be incentives put in place to encourage reduced consumption of water, such as tax breaks. Another interesting question to ponder is whether water should be privatized or considered a public good.

  8. The price of bottle water is hundreds of time more expensive than tap water. Even though I believe every human has the right the to a supply of fresh drinking water, we need to implement policies that make people value water more. Government needs to create incentives for people to reduce their water consumption and use only what they need. The price of tap water shown on our monthly water bills does reflect the true value of this commodity. Maybe an increase in the price of tap water would make people more aware of valuable this resource is. Also an increase in price could result in less water consumption. This is an even more pressing issue for states like Colorado where a growing population will soon put heavy strains on water supplies. We need to consider changing our policies on water to ensure enough water is available for our growing needs.

  9. What an interesting and under-addressed idea: the value of water. I often think about this issue since I am both a westerner and a water science major. Denver is arguably a pioneer in water conservation, but do they do enough? Those on Denver Water have some of the cheapest delivered water in the Denver metro area ($593 annually average vs. $706 annually average in Boulder vs. $900 Ft Collins vs. $1220 Erie). What about more encouragement for not growing Kentucky Bluegrass? Denver water is self-interested in more water consumption after all…

  10. What an interesting and under-addressed idea: the value of water. I often think about this issue since I am both a westerner and a water science major. Denver is arguably a pioneer in water conservation, but do they do enough? Those on Denver Water have some of the cheapest delivered water in the Denver metro area ($593 annually average vs. $706 annually average in Boulder vs. $900 Ft Collins vs. $1220 Erie). What about more encouragement for not growing Kentucky Bluegrass? Denver water is self-interested in more water consumption after all…

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  14. Joe Petrusaitis

    Hello Mark; It seems like reality is catching up with a lot of town’s lack of infrastructure investment.Nice article.Joe”still standing,”from Hamilton.Mt.

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