Image by Victoria Pickering licensed under Creative Commons.

Have you ever been mystified by all those charges on your monthly water bill? DC Water does far more than supply clean water and take waste away from our homes and businesses, so it can be a bit complicated. Never fear — we'll help you decode the charges.

To understand a water bill, we need to understand what DC Water does

Waste water comes in two forms: water that's piped away from our homes and businesses, and water that falls as precipitation and makes its way into our streams and rivers. We not only pay for the water piped piped away, we pay for efforts to control the latter as well.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is the final destination for much of that water flow, which means we're indirectly paying to clean it up. Those efforts have been very successful: watchdogs recently celebrated near-record water quality.

In my neighborhood of Forest Hills, storm drains capture most of our storm water runoff before they head to Rock Creek via the Soapstone and Melvin Hazen valleys. Here, we are lucky to have separate sewage and storm water systems, but other parts of DC have a combined system. When it rains too heavily they both overflow, and fecal matter and pollutants end up being emptied into our streams and rivers.

The EPA’s clean water regulations require DC Water to address this. DC Water is building new tunnels to hold this mixed water and slowly release it to be treated at Blue Plains when it has the capacity. Another method is to slow or collect excess storm water and prevent it from overwhelming the sewers to begin with.

Under a 2015 agreement with the EPA, DC Water aims to reduce combined sewer overflow volume by 96% system-wide in part via green infrastructure. The agency is providing funding for green roofs, roof and rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns, and permeable pavement. Wilson High School is among the buildings making use of captured water, called gray water, in toilets.

DC Water sees green infrastructure as a good investment and a less expensive option than building tunnels, so our water bills may not escalate as quickly.

Let’s look at the fees in a water bill

A sample DC Water bill. (Download the PDF version)

There are two determinants that impact the fees charged in our water bill — the amount of water we use, and the amount of impervious surface (like a parking lot) throughout the city.

The amount of water we use is measured by our water meters, which are in the process of being replaced. These meters provide the usage readings (labeled ACT) on which part of your bill is based. An estimated reading will be provided on your bill if your meter is not working or cannot be read.

The chart at the top of your bill states your meter number, size, and the read dates (prior and current) as well as the reading on each of those dates. Then comes the usage, in “CCF” or 100 cubic feet of water usage. This is what determines many of your fees.

Here's a breakdown of the fees, from top to bottom:

  • Meter Fee: This is like paying rent for the use of the meter.
  • Water System Replacement Fee: This for replacing aged water mains and pipes, some of which are eight decades old or older, and well beyond the age where they should be replaced. The fee is based on meter size and average flow. We see this money at work in our neighborhood with the recently completed Brandywine Street project, a similar project on 29th Street, and on Springland Lane and Idaho Avenue.
  • Water Services Lifeline and Standard Residential Rates: These are based on water usage.
  • Sewer Services: For the use of the system that takes the waste water away.
  • Clean River: This pays for storm water management, including storm sewers and green infrastructure. It is determined by the amount of impervious service on your lot, including rooftops, paved driveways, patios, and parking lots. Learn more.
  • DC Government Fees: PILOT (Payment-In-Lieu Of Taxes) and ROW (right of way) are based on usage, and the storm water fee based on impervious surface. These are pass-throughs to the city for DCWater storm water and sewage infrastructure running through public space.

Our water bill pays for our usage and cleaner rivers. But is this enough?

Can our water system, supported by this fee structure, withstand the continuing impacts of climate change and population growth? Government climate scientist Virginia Burkett told Washingtonian that we’ll see even more flooding at Metro stations and around the DC waterfront because rainfall is rising and the land is sinking. Burkett also predicts that by mid-century, we may not even have enough water to meet demand from a growing population. That leaves me with the question: what else should we be doing?

If you're wondering the same thing, head the DC Water town hall meeting on April 26 at the IDEA Public Charter School cafeteria at 1027 45th St NE. You can also sign up to testify when the DC Water board of directors holds its annual public rate hearing on May 9, at 6:30 pm at 777 North Capitol Street, NE. Here are the proposed rates for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.