After three years of steep rate increases, sewer rates in Durango have outpaced the national average and are set to go up again in January.
Residents in Bayfield, Ignacio and other communities in the region also pay more than $479 per year – the national annual average for sewer services – which is calculated by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Rates are rising faster nationwide than inflation as infrastructure ages and regulations for water quality tighten, according to the national association. But throughout the region, the higher charges could also be driven by small populations.
“When you are a smaller community, you don’t have as many people paying into the system,” said Bayfield Town Manager Chris LeMay.
Durango residents can expect a 3 percent sewer-rate increase in January after the Durango City Council’s approval of the 2018 budget on Tuesday. The increase will bring the average city resident’s monthly sewer bill to $49.94 or about $599 annually.
The city also added a $2.30 fee for sustainability to each utility bill to help fund new special projects, such as a planned greenhouse gas inventory.
The changes will increase the average monthly city utility bill from $110.81 to $114.56, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said in a recent meeting. This estimate includes charges for sewer, water, trash, recycling, sustainability and spring and fall cleanup.
The inflationary increase to sewer rates comes after three years of double-digit increases needed in part to help pay for the major upgrades to the Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility currently under construction. The city received a $62.5 million loan for the expansion of the plant that will ensure the city can meet higher standards for water quality and remove more phosphorous and nitrogen. The construction is running on time and within budget, LeBlanc said.
Following the increases, most Durangoans will pay an $18.65 base charge and an additional $10.43 on every 1,000 gallons of water the customer uses, said City Operations Director Levi Lloyd. A customer’s wastewater use is an average of how much fresh water a household uses during January, February and March when residents aren’t irrigating.
“The rates are able to maintain a steady, dependable revenue stream for fixed costs and also charge those who use more water, and thereby sewer, for their share of treatment costs,” Lloyd said.
Some sewer rates in nearby communities that have outpaced the national average rely on flat monthly fees to pay for wastewater treatment, rather than both a base rate and usage charge.
Durangoan and water engineer John Simpson is concerned the usage charge is unfair to low-income residents.
“Low-income sewer users are not low-usage users. Leaky faucets, old fixtures and multiple generations in houses lead to high usage,” he said.
A family in Durango paying for 5,000 gallons of wastewater per month could pay more than $800 annually for sewer, he said.
The city has not recently evaluated its usage charges compared with other communities, Lloyd said.
However, the city is replacing all the water meters in town, which will help provide exact data for a study that will re-examine what residents pay.
Among regional towns, Bayfield and Ignacio have two of the highest fixed base rates. In Bayfield, a residential customer pays about $597 per year, and in Ignacio, a resident pays about $900 per year. Neither town has a usage charge.
Ignacio Town Board Member Tom Atencio is concerned about the high fees the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Utilities Division charges to provide wastewater treatment for the tribe and the town of Ignacio.
Residents of Ignacio pay $69.65 per month to the tribe to treat the wastewater and $5.75 per month to the town for septic collections and billing.
The fees the tribe charges continue to rise. Atencio worries that they are already unaffordable for those on fixed incomes, and he wants to make sure the costs are justified.
For about two years, the town has asked the Southern Ute Utilities Division for a rate analysis that would support the high fees, said Interim Town Manager Mark Garcia. After the town started mediation, a legal way to resolve conflicts, the tribe agreed to do a rate study and now the two governments are sharing the cost of a study.
“Let’s be fair on what we’re getting charged,” Atencio said.
In addition, the town has not increased its share of the rates for many years, in part, because fees are already high. As a result, it doesn’t have the money for major repairs, he said.
The tribe provides wastewater treatment because it built a new plant to serve the town and the tribe in 1999. At the time, the town did not have the resources to build a new facility, spokeswoman Lindsay Box said in an email.
“The condition of the old wastewater collection and treatment systems threatened to impede development in and around Ignacio, including tribal development,” she said in an email.
In 2009, Ignacio and the tribe entered into a 10-year agreement for wastewater treatment services.
“Rates under the tribe and town’s agreements are structured based on cost of service principles,” she said.
Bayfield took over wastewater operations from a sanitation district about 10 years ago, and the town stuck with the flat-fee structure the district set up, LeMay said.
He expects the town will do a rate study next year, and there could be rate changes in 2019, he said.