Howard Rieger has worked in lawn care for 24 years and lived in Bismarck for 54.
“I’ve seen drought years in the past, however, this is probably one of the worst ones we’ve seen,” Rieger said.
He owns Lawntech Outdoor Services and says the rate structure Bismarck instituted in 2019 has costs skyrocketing in the summer.
“In 2019, my August watering bill was $160. Last year in August it was $460, and I used almost exactly the same amount of water,” Rieger said.
That five-tier structure charges higher rates for those who use the most water.
Bismarck Public Works Director of Utility Operations Michelle Klose says the rate structure exists to accommodate how different people use water differently.
“Almost 90 percent of our customers use less than 18 units of water every month. Even in the summer, they’re not pushing watering,” Klose said.
In other words, minority of customers use the majority of water — leading to the development of three customer types based on their meter usage.
Single-family homes make up the bulk of water users in Bismarck with about 15,000 customers. That’s followed by multi-family water users, which includes apartments, condos and mobile homes, at about 5,000 customers. The remaining 2,000 customers are non-residential businesses.
Of those three categories, single-family homes cause the peaks seen in the summer, while multi-family and commercial users have more consistent usage year-round.
“The city has good reasons for doing what they did. However, regardless of what they’ve done or what they say, our city, our beautiful city of Bismarck, North Dakota is brown,” Rieger said.
But solutions aren’t so simple to come by.
“We have had residents asking, ‘Can you shave down this cost and have everybody be charged more in the bottom area?’ That’s not really fair to our customers who use very little water,” Klose said.
Plus, changing the water rates to cover for higher users would mean the city’s water plant would need to expand 5 to 10 million more gallons sooner, to accommodate more use.
That would cost about $50 million.
“If we changed the rates or tried to subsidize that higher use, we’d be pushed into having to do that expansion sooner, which drives future costs,” Klose said.
Klose says the new structure is fairest to customers, but there’s always room to improve.
“I do believe that the next rate structure, we’ll be able to look at these details closer and ask smarter questions and even refine it better than here today. I do think there’s room for improvement,” Klose said.
Klose says the city conducted a rate study in 2018 that helped set the current rates.