Water is the lifeblood of Idaho. This is no more apparent than across the arid Snake River Plain, much of which receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually. The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for over 300,000 Idahoans. It is one of Idaho’s most precious resources so everyone wants a piece of the pie – municipalities, agricultural producers, industry, and so on. The state of Idaho has put considerable resources into recharging the aquifer to bolster declining groundwater levels. However, the easiest, simplest, and most effective solution remains to use less water. For municipalities, the low-hanging fruit in this regard is water metering.

What is Water Metering?

Water metering is simply the process of measuring water use. In a public water system, water metering measures the volume of water used by residential and commercial customers. Coupled with a pricing structure based on volume, a metered water system provides customers with the incentive to conserve water. A similar type of system is used by electrical utilities to calculate your bill based on the cost of energy and the number of kilowatt hours used.

In a non-metered water system, you could use 10 gallons of water per month while your thirsty neighbor uses 100 gallons, but you both pay the same flat rate.  Such a system is not equitable; those who already conserve water subsidize those who don’t so there is no financial incentive for people to conserve water. On the flip-side, in a metered water system, your water bill depends on how much you use so your neighbor would have a clear financial incentive to cut back on their water use.

According to recent studies on metered water systems, customers will use 20-30% less water when paying a metered water rate as opposed to a flat rate.

Ammon’s Water Conservation Efforts

Ammon, a small city of about 15,000 people in eastern Idaho, provides a great example of how municipalities can make a real difference by switching to a metered water system. On March 7, 2019, the Ammon City Council approved metered water rates for residential customers for the first time. This is a big step because even small cities need a LOT of water. In 2018, Ammon pumped just over two billion gallons of water from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. Assuming a 20-30% reduction in water use based on recent studies, Ammon expects to save in the neighborhood of 400 million to 650 million gallons of water per year – equivalent to nearly 1000 Olympic-sized swimming pools! Over a 20-year period, the city is expecting to save upwards of 500 billion gallons of water.

Time for Other Cities to Follow the Lead

Ammon illustrates how even small municipalities can make a big difference when it comes to water conservation. Just next door to Ammon, Idaho Falls (pop. 61,000) is one of the largest unmetered cities in Idaho. With four times the population of Ammon, Idaho Falls could achieve a correspondingly bigger total water savings through the relatively simple water metering approach. Installing a metered watered system in a larger city is expensive, but given the scarcity of water resources in the region, it is a worthwhile investment in our future. The aquifer is a priceless resource for eastern Idaho, and taking simple measures to retain billions of gallons of water in the aquifer is something that every unmetered municipality should be seriously considering.