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The price of a drink

Water use is on the decline, thanks to more conservation efforts, but homeowners’ bills are still climbing as infrastructure costs rise

Conservation education and infrastructure repairs have helped reduce water use.

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Conservation education and infrastructure repairs have helped reduce water use.

The amount of water used by people across the state every day is dropping, driven by an increasing concern about the environment and nudges from the government — even as the price of water continues to climb rapidly.

Water usage by residents dropped by 10 gallons per day on average between 2006 and 2011, according to state figures. That is enough to fill two standard office water dispensers.

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“That’s good news,” said Kate Bowditch, director of projects of the Weston-based Charles River Watershed Association, which is heavily involved in water-management issues. “If we can use less water and still have a good quality of life, that’s a good outcome for everyone.”

Water usage is high in some communities north of Boston. In four communities — Manchester-by-the-Sea, Woburn, Lynnfield, and Swampscott — it averages more than 80 gallons per day per resident. At 97 gallons a day per resident, Manchester-by-the-Sea has the second-highest usage in the state, after Weston, according to state data.

And around the region, the average cost of water in cities and towns is climbing rapidly, sparked by costly repairs to crumbling infrastructure, which in some communities is more than a century old, and increased regulation.

The estimated average annual cost of water for a household statewide hit $498 last year, up more than 35 percent from 2006, according to Tighe & Bond, a Westfield-based company that collects the statistics. The survey said that the highest average water bill in the Globe North readership area was in Reading, at about $1,075 per year, though local officials insist the average is not that high.

Tighe & Bond conducts a survey of water rates in Massachusetts communities nearly every year, and uses an average annual use of 90,000 gallons per year per resident. Some observers complain that the company’s numbers are inflated, because usage has dropped steadily over the years. But the company says it has stayed with 90,000 gallons, rather than adjust it downward, in order to make year-to-year comparisons easier.

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To be sure, water use and cost can vary tremendously from town to town or even from home to home — obvious to anyone who has watched lawn sprinklers firing away on rainy days or who has teenagers immersed in marathon shower sessions.

“They all add up,” said Jennifer Pederson, the executive director of the Acton-based Massachusetts Water Works Association, an industry group made up of 1,100 water suppliers, consulting engineers, equipment manufacturers, and others.

She pointed out that prices are also up, oddly enough, because water suppliers are pumping less water, which cuts into revenue, but suppliers still must cover their fixed costs, so they raise prices.

Statewide, annual household costs in different communities ranged from more than $1,500 in Cohasset to less than $200 in places such as Burlington, Pittsfield, and Lynnfield, according to Tighe & Bond.

As for usage, several factors affect how much water is used in various communities.

“Lawn watering is a big variable,” said Duane LeVangie, a program director with the state Department of Environmental Protection “Some communities don’t have lawns. My backyard ia a half-acre. The land use patterns and demographics of each community vary widely.”

Some communities, such as Lynnfield, are split into separate water districts, which creates odd disparities.

The Lynnfield Water District serves the southern third of town and purchases water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. Its users pay more and use more than residents served by the Lynnfield Center Water District, which uses ground water from local wells.

Water is relatively cheap in both districts, $338 for an annual average in the Water District and a rock-bottom $113 in the Center Water District, according to the Tighe & Bond survey.

However, those numbers conceal the true cost. Both districts have extra charges included in property tax bills, determined by assessed values, which can raise the total water bill costs by several hundred dollars.

“We have been traditionally very cheap,” said Stefan Taschner, chairman of the Center Water District.

James F. Finegan, chairman of the Lynnfield Water District, said his district’s water is more expensive because it is piped in from the Quabbin Reservoir, while the other district pumps it up locally.

And the water taste is different too.

Finegan noted that MWRA water from the Quabbin has won contests for its taste. The Center District’s ground water includes minerals, which can be a “good thing,” he said.

Local officials, not surprisingly, are sensitive about water rates. In Reading, for example, Robert W. LeLacheur Jr., the town manager, said usage is relatively low, so bills are not as high as the survey might indicate.

“We are pretty good at conservation,” he said. The state placed Reading in the lower quarter of average use, at about 47 gallons per user per day.

But there are two other big reasons affecting Reading residents’ water bills — the MWRA and an aggressive effort to repair aging infrastructure, he said.

To join the MWRA, the town agreed to pay an upfront capital cost fee through the year 2027. The amount decreases every year; in fiscal 2013 it was about $900,000.

The town also works hard to keep its water mains and sewers in good shape, which helps avoid leaks and service disruptions, he said. It spent about $600,000 on maintenance in fiscal 2013, he said.

In Melrose, town officials recently adopted a tiered water-rate system, dropping a flat-rate system. The system has three tiers, with prices going up the more water is used. The new rate went into effect with the new fiscal year, which started July 1.

“We’re trying to encourage conservation,” said Alderman Donald Conn, who serves on a water advisory committee. “I think the way we were doing things needed to be updated.”

Water has ignited some fights in Melrose in the past.

Arnold Koch, with the Melrose Taxpayers Alliance, fought the city several years ago over how it billed for water, and is back again with new complaints.

Back then, because the rates changed with the new fiscal year, and meters were read on a staggered schedule, some people would get quarterly water bills charging them a higher rate for water that had been consumed when the lower rates were in effect.

The city agreed to change its system so people would not be back-billed. However the new system brought a return of back-billing, where people might get billed for a few weeks at the higher rate, said Conn.

“It’s like buying a bottle of milk in April and being charged a higher price in July,” said Koch. “It think it’s unfortunate. It may be all right legally, but ethically I think it is questionable.”

Conn said new measures that aldermen plan to study would solve back-billing. A new electronic metering system would modernize an archaic system and eliminate the practice, he said.

“We’re trying to do right thing here,” said Conn.

The state has been pushing communities and water suppliers to lower the average number of gallons used per person per day to 65 gallons or less.

The work is paying off. In 2011, about 220 water suppliers met or exceeded the goal, compared with about 140 in 2006.

Repairs to infrastructure, which reduce leakage, and tighter plumbing codes, which require more efficient toilets and faucets, have helped, said LeVangie of the DEP, who is the state’s point person in charge of making sure communities reach the mandated goal.

If towns fail to get to 65 gallons, the state can require additional conservation measures, such as restrictions on lawn watering, more aggressive leak detection in pipes, and stepped up public education.

The largest public water suppliers serve the vast majority of the state, delivering 900 million gallons a day, he said.

Other water suppliers — like the Ring’s Island Water District in Salisbury — are tiny water districts that supply 100,000 gallons or less.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.

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