Worldwide cost of tap water

Water is too cheap!

A little further down in the blog when I conclude that rain barrels are only the leading edge of a water public relations campaign and that they only make sense if they are given away free, I made a casual comment that water is cheap. "Tap water costs next to nothing" is the exact quote from my most recent Rain barrel vs. soil rant. A comment from Diane of Food, Fun and Life in the Charente was that tap water was too expensive to see extensive outdoor use in France and the UK.

Wikipedia supports this, citing 6% of total residential water used outdoors (lawn watering and washing cars) in France. This is much lower than California (The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California estimates that, "in hot, dry areas, landscape irrigation can account for as much as 70 percent of the summer water use in single-family homes."  This is probably a histrionic upper limit for PR purposes, but it can still serve as a point of comparison: 6% is a factor of 10 less than 70% so the real numbers are probably not in alignment either.) But is it really a cost issue that keeps outdoor water use in France much lower than in southern California or is it a cultural and horticultural issue?

A little Googling turned up a survey of U.S. water prices at Circle of Blue from earlier this year. It's an interesting read. Such surveys are complicated to synthesize data for because in addition to water use costs, there can be meter charges and other fixed monthly or bimonthly charges as well as water disposal costs (sewer fees) that are based on use. In response to a query, the author responded that sewer costs were not addressed in his article.  I assume that it included the other fixed costs of water service.

I computed averages for California cities listed in the article and compared them to four European nations (I actually computed two California averages: one for Fresno, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego and a second that excluded San Francisco because it has such a high urban population density and high rainfall that it is markedly different in water use pattern.) 

Data for average residential prices for water in four industrialized European nations is contained a 2006 report titled "VEWA Survey Comparison of European Water and Wastewater Prices" that I found online. These numbers do not include sewer charges, so ignoring the several year difference in freshness of the data, it's fair to make the comparison directly to Circle of Blue numbers.   More Googling turned up average rainfall on a per region or per country basis.  Those are very rough numbers, since within Great Britain, for example, rainfall averages can vary between 65 and 447 cm.  Nonetheless, comparison of California vs. European water rates and annual precipitation is interesting.

Diane was right - costs are higher in industrialized Europe.  Not only that, but we also have much scarcer precipitation in California, and we still charge less, whereas one might intuit that we would charge more for a scarce commodity.  The flip side of average costs is average use.  I didn't tabulate water use numbers, but it's 125 gallons per day for the five California cities in the average and 159 gallons per day excluding San Francisco.  European water use might be well below half of ours, given France's 6% use rate cited for outdoor water use versus our much larger average.  However, they would have to supplement normal rainfall much less on average to maintain a green lawn since they get more rain in the first place.

Would nearly a factor of two increase in water price result in Euro-style water usage patterns in California?  Maybe.  This data won't lead us to a definitive answer, but people are funny about prices - consider gas prices changing from 2.50/gallon to 3.50/gallon and remember how many people it drove to better fuel economy cars.

A better comparison would be water costs and patterns of use between coastal southern California cities and other Mediterranean climate cites.


  1. You also need to take into account the proportion of people with and without yards. People in LA and SF city limits have miniscule or nonexistent yards compared to suburbs.

  2. I vote that water's too cheap! A friend in Las Vegas tried to do a lawn. He wasn't bothered by it being a bad choice for the desert, but finally gave up when living inappropriately cost him way too much money.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    @lostlandscape - I might agree that it's too cheap as well, but I am rather more certain that attitudes and expectations towards outdoor use of water have to be managed as well. But could we even conceive of, for instance, legislating retroactive changes in residential landscape as a state or region?

    Of the two levers to address conservation, I think that the attitude/expectation lever is longer.

    @badmom -

    SF was by far the most extreme of the California cities with respect to population density (which I took to mean people with minuscule yards) which is why I dropped it from one average. I later regretted not presenting the data from SF alone, because it is such a stark contrast to the others and illustrates one way to achieve conservation - have less stuff that needs water.

  4. Yes, water is tooooo cheap here. Furthermore, not only is it cheap, but the way I am billed, conserving water doesn't save me much money at all. My water bill - and as you noted in your piece, water bills cover more than just water and are different in different cities - has a fixed water fee based on the meter size (ours is large, though we didn't install it), fixed sewage fee - unrelated to water use, rubbish fee - also unrelated to amount of garbage generated, and then the water usage part. In my last bill, water usage totaled 11% of the bill. So whether I use a lot or a little, the bill is roughly the same. So much for encouraging conservation.

    And finally, the use of water units (100 ccf) in the bill make it very hard for regular people to visualize how much water they are actually using, unless they take out a calculator and multiply by 748 gallons/unit.

    We need to get serious and you are absolutely right, rain barrels ain't the answer.

  5. Interesting post. And yes SF has very few yards of any size. I've often heard them called postage stamp yards if that give you an idea of their size. I'm curious what the SF data was. comparing to Mediterranean countries/regions would be interesting as well. Here the suburbs are definitely the biggest wasters of waters. I've seen several yards in Contra Costa county (East of Oakland) that have small vineyards planted! I would also be curious about agricultural water prices here, vs. other dry regions.