Editorial: Rising water rates are a pain, but the alternative stinks

Trying to unclog a stuck toilet is one of the most disgusting and horrifying things a homeowner can face.

Imagine dealing with 8,700 of them.

That’s what the City and Borough of Juneau is trying to avoid. Every 10 years, the CBJ revises its water and sewer rates. It’s an unpleasant experience for homeowners — rates go up, not down.

This time around, the experience may be more unpleasant than it was the last time around. A study commissioned by the CBJ and released in February suggests nine years of rate increases will be needed to balance the books of the CBJ’s water and sewer funds.

That isn’t a fun idea, but without those increases, a stuck toilet might become an optimistic analogy for the CBJ’s water and sewer network.

Juneau is served by a $275 million labyrinth of pipes and plants that give us fresh water and haul away dirty water. Much of that network was built in the 1980s and 1990s, after the federal government demanded Juneau stop dumping raw sewage into Gastineau Channel.

While that system has served Juneau well, it has a limited lifespan. Estimates published by CBJ public works indicate the system will need at least $73 million in work over the next decade.

Some of that cost will be paid by cruise ships and the city’s sales tax, but most will be shouldered by homeowners and business owners who receive water and sewer bills.

The study released last month calls for water rates 83 percent higher in 2023 than they are today. The increase would be spread over intervening years, but that doesn’t change the result: A homeowner with an unmetered residential bill of $26.40 per month today would pay $48.44 per month in 2023.

If that boils your blood, simmer. In 1980, the same residential customer paid $19 per month for water.

If the CBJ had raised rates to simply keep pace with inflation, homeowners would be paying almost $54 per month today. Instead, they pay less than half that.

The fact is, water and sewer service is much cheaper today than it was in 1980. In fact, compared with the rates homeowners pay in other Southeast communities, Juneau’s water and sewer service is a bargain.

Ketchikan homeowners pay almost $43 per month for water. In Sitka, they pay $30.80 per month.

We don’t like that water rates are going up, but the alternative stinks.

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