Water is God's Gift, but Pumping Costs Money

Evaluating Chicago's directive to phase out free water services to local nonprofits and religious institutions

James Laughlin

I was reading an article recently about the flap in Chicago over the city's plan to phase out free water services to local nonprofits, including religious institutions. An interfaith group held a press conference to oppose the change, claiming that having to pay for water might divert funds from vital social services they provide throughout the city.

I thought it was much ado about nothing, but what caught my eye was a comment from Cardinal Francis George claiming they shouldn't be charged because water from Lake Michigan was a "gift from God."

"It wasn't owned by the city or invented by the city," he was quoted as saying. Later, he was quoted as jokingly commenting, "We feel sometimes we should charge the city for using our water."

I really felt a tremendous urge to reach through the Internet and slap said cardinal upside the head. "Your brain was a gift from God. Why not try using it?" I shouted at my computer screen.

As background, Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the exemption that gave churches free water in December 2011. He initially planned to charge them a growing percentage of the cost of water services that would rise through 2014, when nonprofits would pay up to 80 percent of their water bill. He recently proposed a new system that would charge nonprofits for water based on their assets. Those with net assets under $1 million would be exempt from paying for water, while nonprofits with more than $250 million in assets would pay the full charge. Those in between would pay a discounted rate.

As we all know, providing water service carries a hefty price tag in this time of aging infrastructure and tight city budgets. I found it surprising that a city the size of Chicago would even consider providing free or reduced price water to any organization. I saw one estimate that the program costs the city about $20 million a year.

In a statement, Tom Alexander, the mayor's deputy communications director, called the asset-based compromise "a fair, reasonable proposal that will allow all nonprofit institutions the chance to continue providing their vital community services while paying their fair share, just as residents do."

I'm sure many people in the water industry have dealt with dummies who think that water should be free. But as we all know, customers are not paying for water; they are paying for the service to treat and deliver it.

In the small world category, I read the Chicago article as I was researching an article on the value of water to the U.S. economy. You can see the article in this issue. Placing a "value" on water is one thing. Determining a fair price for clean, safe water delivered to a home or business is an entirely separate issue. Communicating that difference to your customers is key.

And when someone says that water should be free, you can tell them it is. "Grab a bucket and run down to the lake. Take as much as you want. I won't charge you a dime!"

James LaughlinJames Laughlin, Managing Editor

More WaterWorld Current Issue Articles
More WaterWorld Archives Issue Articles

More in Asset Management