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Mild, wet weather puts a damper on Columbia utility budget

Friday, August 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Mild temperatures and rainy days have contributed to a deficit for Columbia’s water utility funds, which is estimated to be as large as $1 million by the end of the 2009 fiscal year.

Water and Light Advisory Board member Tom O’Connor said summer is the make-or-break point for the water utility because of increased demand from lawn care and other dry weather-related activities.

This year has seen a unanticipated drop in demand, however, because in the summer months of June and July there was a total rainfall in Columbia of 5.8 inches, according to the National Weather Service’s preliminary data. The average monthly rainfall for the two months is 3.9 inches.

Board member Richard Parker said that the water utility nets a loss in the winter and typically recuperates the loss in a normal summer. This year he predicts it will end in debt, unless the next three months are extremely hot.

O'Connor, who joined the board three years ago, said he had no recollection of the water utility ending in the negative until now.

Department director Kraig Kahler said at Thursday morning’s board meeting that the combination of the recession and the weather have lowered both electric and water utility revenues.

The electric utility’s income as of the end of June was $3.9 million, which is about one-third less than last year's income for the same period.

“When things slow up a little bit, the electric kind of takes over for the water utility,” Kahler said of the influence of the economic downturn.

Kahler referred to the stability the electric utility offers during a recession, which the water utility can fall back on for support.

The decrease in revenue from electricity is likely a byproduct of people being more cautious about their electric usage, O’Connor said, which is a good thing from a conservation standpoint.

One tool for generating revenue and promoting conservation is the increase in usage breakpoints for customers. Customers who use an exorbitant amount of energy or water pay for it at a higher rate than do those who use an average amount or less.

“The biggest tool in the tool box is electricity rates," O'Connor said. "It seems to me if you are using three times as much (energy) as the average user, then that seems a little excessive.”

O’Connor suggested that the electricity rates be raised even more after certain levels of energy consumption in order to hold high-energy users accountable.

Parker said that Missouri and Columbia are far behind their Western regions in energy efficiency technology and conservation.

“The per capita energy use of California residents is about half that of Columbia (residents),” Parker said.

O'Connor said he has lowered his energy usage at his home by nearly 75 percent compared to five years ago through energy-efficient improvements and avoiding phantom loads like cell phone chargers, which continue to use energy even when unconnected to a phone.

For more information on energy-efficient rebates and the demand-side management plan outlined in the department's Integrated Resource Plan, go to Water and Light's Web site at gocolumbiamo.com/WaterandLight.


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