Our View: Got Lawn? Pay For Water

It's clear that the major driver of increased water use in Chatham over the past few years has been irrigation systems. They're much more commonplace today than they were even a half decade ago; it seems wherever there is new construction, an irrigation system is installed so the new owner can enjoy a beautiful verdant lawn.

Which, by the way, is completely antithetical to Cape Cod; our soil does not naturally support grassy lawns and the intense management required is not good for the environment, due both to the fertilizer and water necessary to maintain that suburban lawn look. Fertilizer is another subject altogether; water is our subject here.

Two years ago Chatham suffered a scare when water use spiked and nearly overtook the ability of the public water system to keep up. That sent officials scurrying to ensure that the system could provide enough water to meet the demand. While consumption dropped somewhat, it is still trending high. Supply is not the problem; especially after this season's wet weather, there's plenty of water in the ground. Getting it out and into homes and businesses around town is the issue.

In order to pay for new infrastructure, the water and sewer advisory committee is proposing increasing rates. Since the cost of water hasn't gone up in more than a decade, this is not unexpected. The problem comes with the fact that other than by increasing the cost, there's no other way to force people to use less water. Voluntary restrictions have been in place the past few summers, but officials say while year-round residents seem to be using less water, summer consumption hasn't really gone down. They point to irrigation as the likely reason. A simple fix would seem to be hiking the rate for water used for irrigation.

However, the board of selectmen, acting as water and sewer commissioners, opted not to require that there be separate meters for irrigation systems. The advisory committee plans to ask selectmen to revisit that decision so that the new rates, likely to be in place beginning next year, can include a separate irrigation rate that would be higher than the regular rate. This is necessary, the committee says, so that other large water users – particular businesses such as restaurants and nursing homes – can be charged a somewhat lower rate than would apply to irrigation systems. Those businesses should pay their fair share, to be sure, but they aren't driving the increase in water use – the folks who want green lawns are. By having a higher irrigation rate, those users would heft a larger share of the costs necessary to add infrastructure to accommodate their need, and just might decide to use less water and thus negate the need for some of that additional capacity.