Metro

Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Faced with a drought, why not charge more for water?

A dead Christmas tree seedling in a field of dead seedlings at Smolak Farms in North Andover.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
A dead Christmas tree seedling in a field of dead seedlings at Smolak Farms in North Andover.

Massachusetts has been yellowed by drought, and it’s all our fault.

OK, that’s probably too strong, given that we don’t control the weather. But droughts aren’t just about rain, they’re also about water use. And if our liquid resources are running short, that’s not just because the clouds have gotten parsimonious, it’s also because we’re draining our supplies too quickly.

In greater Boston, water use was actually higher this July than it’s been in over a decade, in a perverse cycle where drought-conditions encourage people to supply their own sprinkler-made precipitation.

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Some towns are fighting back with restrictions on lawn-watering and non-essential use, but there’s another option: raise the price of water. That would certainly make people think twice before taking a 30-minute shower, and it could be structured in a way that protects low-income households.

How bad is the drought?

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We’ve still got a long way to go before we can compete with a truly drought-plagued place like California. For now, Massachusetts cities and towns are mostly dealing with manageable shortfalls, not desperately low reservoirs or long-term ecological damage.

But this is the second year in a row Massachusetts has gotten too little rain. And the results are visible all around, from the wilting plants to the missing mosquitoes and the disappointed gardeners.

Officially, about three-quarters of the state is suffering from either “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions. These aren’t scientifically precise terms, just loose estimates of how bad the crop losses will be and how far the water shortages have spread. But by any measure, Massachusetts is a whole lot drier than usual.

What’s being done to conserve water?

About 150 communities across the state have implemented some kind of restriction on non-essential water use, most of them mandatory — so if you’re caught using water for one of the restricted activities you’re liable to be warned and then fined.

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A lot of these restrictions began as voluntary requests, but Massachusetts has quickly discovered what lots of other municipalities have already learned: Asking nicely doesn’t work. During the California drought, areas with voluntary restrictions actually saw water use increase.

Sadly, something similar is playing out in Massachusetts. Across Greater Boston, water usage in July was actually 10 percent higher than last year. In fact, we used more water than in any single month since 2005. And there’s no mystery as to why: People see their suffering lawns and respond.

Across the region, that means each household used about 300 gallons of water each day — and each person just over 100 gallons. To give you some perspective, the average shower requires less than 20 gallons. The average dishwasher uses about 5.

What else can towns do?

It may be possible to step up enforcement and tighten regulations: fewer days of irrigation allowed, more consistent fines, phone calls and direct outreach to households with fast-climbing meters.

Beyond that, there’s also the option of raising prices.

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Water is no different from other commodities. Increase the cost, and people will use less of it; price it too low, and you encourage people to overuse.

In drought times, when you really need people to think about the value of disappearing water, boosting prices is a good way to make sure they hesitate before breaking out the hose to water their lawns.

But for now this isn’t going to happen. For one thing, water departments are heavily regulated, often in ways that prevent them from raising prices without ample warning and abundant oversight.

Also, there are legitimate concerns about whether a price increase would turn economic inequality into water inequality (as happened to some degree in Detroit).

But if the state wanted to raise prices it would be possible to do so in a fair way. For instance, all households could be granted a certain basic amount of water at a low rate, with price increases applied only to excess use. Or the money from an across-the-board price increase could be used to provide water grants to low-income families.

Maybe the risks seem too great, or the hurdles too high. But so far the effort to conserve water with town-by-town restrictions doesn’t seem to achieving much. If the drought grows more severe, we may need to reach for new tools. Paying more for scarce water is always an option.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.