Most Cost-Effective Way to Save Water for Homes

• Topics: Whatcom County, Planning,

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton supposedly said “because that’s where the money is.” In the same vein, programs intended to save water should focus on those customers who use the most water. Surprisingly, most utilities do nothing of the sort; their undifferentiated programs address all customers, whether they use very little or lots of water.

My latest paper, “Improving Water Use Efficiency: Focus on the Outliers,” analyzes monthly water-use data for 2,600 single-family homes in Lynden for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The top 10% of customers use about 900 gallons per day in the summer, 10 times as much as the bottom 10%. This huge difference offers a great opportunity for water utilities to focus their efficiency programs on the top users to minimize program costs and maximize benefits.

Editor note: Because Eric’s formatting uses footnotes that we cannot duplicate in a normal text article, his study is an attached PDF.

Attached Files

About Eric Hirst

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jul 23, 2015

Eric Hirst has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University, spent 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and retired to Bellingham 18 years ago. He [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Aug 01, 2017

Eric - thanks for your research.

Interesting that despite median household water use averaging about 200 gallons per day in Lynden, the State still defines 5,000 gpd as “de minimus” household water use, 25 times actual! This seems to me to indicate a severe lack of leadership and sense in favor of inaction and hand-wringing by our elected officials.

ALso, I think you will agree that household water use in Whatcom County is a drop in the bucket compared to ag use.  Perhaps this fact will allow carving out a new realistic non-exempt standard for households and undo the damage to local property-owners done by the cowardly inaction in the face of the Hirst decision.


Eric Hirst

Aug 01, 2017


I agree with your comment on the nuttiness of the state allowance of 5,000 gallons a day for a rural household well. I think the limit should be reduced to a few hundred gallons a day, depending on the state of the local watershed, and should require metering and monthly reporting of water use to the state Dept. of Ecology.

 I agree that agricultural irrigation use is, by far, the major water user in Whatcom County. This is especially true during the critical summer months when irrigation uses about 70% of all the water consumed.


Scott Wicklund

Aug 02, 2017

Although Bellingham has installed water meters in most neighborhoods, the metered rate is only applied to early installs.  Large areas of the City are billed at the flat rate regardless of use.

I suspect politics is involved.  Heavy water users vote and do not want to pay for their sprinkler irrigation usage at the metered rate.  It is amazing how long rate implementation is delayed unless you consider the politics.


Eric Hirst

Aug 02, 2017


As of January, all Bellingham water customers now have meters and all will soon pay a volumetric charge. That is, the more water they use, the more they will pay. Unfortunately, Bellingham has not yet adopted a tiered rate structure, in which you pay more per gallon for high usage. Ferndale, Lynden and many other local utilities do charge customers higher prices if they use more water.

I can’t figure out why Bellingham - which is an environmental leader in many areas - is such a laggard when it comes to water pricing and its efficiency program.


Ryan Knowlton

Aug 02, 2017

Bellingham has several issues.  First and foremost regarding water use,  the water is drawn from lake whatcom which is fed by the middle fork of the Nooksack river, most of which is then used and sent into Bellingham Bay.  This is pretty detrimental to the river levels in the hot months, whereas homes with wells and septic systems in rural area’s return most of the water to the water table. Meters have been added to Bellingham homes, and a stormwater and impervious surfaces fee is added that actually adds up to quite a bit of money. My grandmothers bill is well over $200 a month.  The thing is, we typcially have a few dry months and then for the rest of the year, we have more water than we know what to do with. It’s interesting that we are blowing out dams for the sake of the fish, when in reality if we used them to retain more water, the levels in the rivers could be better maintained in the dry months and more water could be held back during the wet months.  Adding fish ladders, bypasses, and even “fish taxi’s” works. Look at baker lake for example. This would post gains for the fish on both counts, because more consistent water levels would allow easier upstream migration as well as preventing the wild blow outs that essentailly pressure wash out the area’s the fish have spawned in when the heavy rains come.  This is of course a civil project-new dams and reserviors, and yet another area that government has failed at, while they continue to accept our tax dollars of course.  I would support a LOWER or flat rate cost(so many gallons per person in a household), and then a surcharge for additional use over and above that amount.  Like so many things in Bellingham , this just hurts the working families and those on fixed incomes as they pay such a large “base fee package” and then simply per gallon pricing no matter the usage.




Larry Horowitz

Aug 17, 2017

Eric, I just learned from Linda Twitchell in her op-ed in today’s Herald that “The Hirst decision is not about water.  It’s about stopping people from building homes outside the cities.”

I’m so glad that Linda has clarified that for me.  Is it also clear to you as well?



Eric Hirst

Aug 18, 2017

Linda Twitchell notwithstanding, the WA Supreme Court decision is definitely about water. If you believe all of the following -

- We have abundant supplies of water all year long;

- Salmon, trout, and other wildlife have all the water they need;

- Future population growth and global climate change won’t affect our water supplies –

then you might believe the court decision is misguided.

Otherwise, you’ll recognize that the court merely affirmed longstanding state law, both water law and the Growth Management Act (GMA). A century of water law protects holders of senior (older) water rights from junior rights. New rural residential wells are the most junior of water rights and, especially during dry years, take water from senior water rights, including instream flows. And the GMA requires counties to consider both water quality and supply when making land-use (zoning) decisions.

 This all sounds very sensible to me.

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