October 16, 2003

Public Interest Comment on the Application of the SDWA to Submetered Properties

  • Susan Dudley

    Director, George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center
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Applicability of the Safe Drinking Water Act to Submetered Properties

Stated Purpose:

"To promote full cost and conservation pricing to achieve water conservation."

Summary of RSP Comment:

Under existing EPA policy, if an apartment or office building with more than 15 tenants bills those tenants separately for water, it is deemed to be a "water system" that is "selling" water, and becomes subject to the full regulatory requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Not surprisingly, most multifamily housing units have not installed the equipment necessary to charge tenants based on water use. Instead, most apartment buildings include water usage in the price of rent, with tenants sharing equally in the cost, regardless of usage.

EPA recognizes that its policy discourages water conservation; when apartment dwellers do not face higher costs associated with higher water usage, they have no incentive to conserve water. The new policy would not subject apartment buildings to being regulated as water systems merely because they install submeters to charge tenants separately for water consumption.

The draft policy change is a positive step toward allowing market forces to provide incentives for water conservation. Efforts by the federal government to mandate water conservation through such programs as the Department of Energy's appliance efficiency standards restrict consumer choices and have adverse consequences (such as the necessity of having to flush low-flow toilets more than once). Allowing individuals, whether they live in single family homes or apartments, to pay for the water they use is much more likely to result in more efficient water usage (i.e., more water conservation), without the unintended side effects.

EPA should extend the policy to non-residential buildings, as well as apartment units. It should also resist the temptation to impose any additional requirements on apartment buildings that submeter water, such as mandatory access by water systems.