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Water rates in Pittsburgh are skewed so that customers who use the least amount of water pay more per gallon than industries that use very large amounts. And the disparity will be exacerbated by Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) rate increases that are scheduled to go into effect on July 8. Further increases are planned for the following two years.

One of the reasons for the rate increase cited by the authority was that customers are using less water.

The proposed rate increases on the residential side will continue to charge customers with relatively low water use more per volume than customers who use more water. They also pay significantly more per gallon than large-scale commercial and industrial users. Education and health care facilities pay the highest rates; they will see their bills nearly double over the next three years if the proposed increases go through.

The new rates are slated to go into effect on July 8 if there are no objections from ratepayers.

In a statement included in the May bills sent to PWSA customers, the authority said customers can write to the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) up until July 8 to support or object to the rate increase. If the PUC decides to hold hearings, customers can testify under oath as to their views on the rate increase. The commission could approve the increase, delay the increase or approve a smaller increase.

The authority currently charges residential customers a rate of $33.84 a month for the first 1,000 gallons (for water and sewer) and then $20.45 per 1,000 gallons after that.

The proposed increases by the PWSA are for water, wastewater conveyance, a fee called a “distribution system improvement charge,” and for stormwater generated by impervious areas.

The stormwater fees cost properties with large parking lots more than typical homes. A typical home is charged one equivalent residential unit or ERU. The rate for stormwater for a house will rise from $7.95 a month currently to $14.20 a month in 2026 under the proposed rate increases. According to the authority’s Notice of Proposed Rate Change, the average commercial property is charged eight ERUs, a typical industrial customer is charged 30 ERUs and a typical hospital or educational facility is charged for 32 ERUs.

The rates proposed will increase each year for three years by about 20%, but the real effect will be that the rising rate of the minimum charge will disproportionately affect users who use less water.

In 2022, PWSA established a stormwater fee based on the amount of impervious or hard surfaces on a property. Photo courtesy of PWSA.

A residential customer who uses 1,000 gallons or less will see their bill increase over three years from a total of $43.48 to $75.78, a 74% increase for water and sewer, not including the separate charge for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, which is not part of this increase.

Those same charges for a residence in which the occupants use 3,000 gallons, which PWSA says in its notice is average usage, will rise from $86.43 a month to $146.12 in the third year, a 68.5% increase. Residential customers with much higher water use of 12,000 gallons a month will have an even lower percentage increase of 42% as their water rate goes from $323.49 a month to $460.33.

Industrial customers will have the highest overall percentage increase, but industry will still pay less, per gallon, for water than residential customers.

Overall, the bill for an average factory will rise from the current charge of $12,934.31 a month to $24.648.17 in 2026.

If the charges for stormwater are removed, a factory’s water bill will go from $12,695.81 a month for water and wastewater conveyance to $24,209.57, a 90.6% increase over three years. But the typical factory, according to the PWSA notice, also uses 680,000 gallons a month, so the cost of water in 2026 would be $35.40 per 1,000 gallons, still significantly less than a residential user, who, without the stormwater charge, would be paying $61.58 if they only use 1,000 gallons or the typical residential user using 3,000 gallons who would pay an average of $43.83 per 1,000 gallons.

Health and education facilities currently pay $24.33 per 1,000 gallons for the first 17,000 gallons and then $22.67 for every 1,000 gallons after that. According to the PWSA’s notice, if the rate changes go through, health and education facilities will see their rates rise by just over 90% over the three years of the increases.

The authority’s notice to customers stated “PWSA’s rate filing will support ongoing infrastructure improvements, provide needed resources to meet more stringent environmental and regulatory requirements, and address increasing energy and chemical costs related to inflation. These factors are substantially driving the need for the rate filing and, if approved, will ensure ongoing investment to modernize our water systems and provide essential water, sewer, and stormwater services for current and future generations of customers.”

Letters of support or objection to the increase can be sent to Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Post Office Box 3265, Harrisburg, PA 17105-3265.

People who want to comment if there is a hearing can call 1-800-692-7380 to leave their name and address so they can be notified of any public hearings on the proposed rate changes.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.