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The price of a drink

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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 at 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 remains particularly high in some communities west of Boston, where big house lots, big homes, and wealthy residents are abundant. Weston has the highest per capita water usage in the state, according to one measure.

And in cities and towns around the region, the average cost of water 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 statistics compiled by Tighe & Bond, a Westfield-based engineering and environmental consulting firm. Dover and Wayland have some of the highest rates west of Boston.

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 household. 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 a lower figure, in order to make year-to-year comparisons easier.

‘Lawn watering is a big variable. Some communities don’t have lawns. My backyard is a half-acre.’

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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, executive director of the Acton-based Massachusetts Water Works Association, an industry group that has water suppliers, consulting engineers, and equipment manufacturers among its 1,100 members.

She pointed out that prices are also rising because water suppliers are pumping less water, but still must cover their fixed costs. So, with less revenue, they raise prices to make up the shortfall.

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

As for usage, the amount varies because of a number of factors.

“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.”

For example, Weston uses more water per person per day than any other community in the state — 100 gallons.

That is about twice as much as some other area towns, such as Milford and Holliston.

There is no secret why there is so much water use in Weston, said Town Manager Donna S. VanderClock — large lots, with big lawns and gardens that require a lot of water.

Many of the town’s residential lots are 60,000 square feet or larger, she said.

“With those lots come irrigation systems and the desire to have the plants and lawns watered,” she said.

Milford residents use among the least amount of water in the state, and that is by necessity, according to David Condrey, manager of the Milford Water Co., a private utility.

The company uses water from the Echo Lake reservoir and wells, he said, and supplies are tight.

For almost a year, Milford Water’s customers had restrictions that banned outside watering from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and only with a hand-held hose after 7 p.m. With the rainy spring, restrictions were recently relaxed somewhat, he said.

“The company is very conscious of what we have for storage,” said Condrey. The average water use in Milford is 49 gallons per person per day. Since 2006, the company has refused to let residents connect in-ground water sprinklers.

Some businesses and developments put in their own wells so they can water their lawns.

Meanwhile, Milford Water Co. and the town are in an acrimonious fight before the state Department of Public Utilities over a proposed rate increase.

The company wants an increase of 82.7 percent to offset the $21 million cost of a new water treatment plant.

In filings to the DPU, town officials vehemently opposed the increase, saying the company is mismanaged, has provided an “essentially defective product,” and already received a rate increase of more than 33 percent in 2011.

The company’s water was contaminated with e.coli bacteria in 2009, followed by a chlorine problem that began in late 2010 and lasted through 2011. In response, the state ordered Milford Water to build the new treatment plant.

The town said there was no true competitive bidding process because the contractor is related to the owners of Milford Water. The company said the contractor was qualified.

A decision by the DPU is expected by late next month.

Some communities have more than one water provider.

Groton, the largest town by area in Middlesex County, but with a population of only about 11,000, has two water entities. The price people pay for water from the two suppliers and its usage are roughly the same.

Both suppliers get their water from wells, but they are miles apart, said James Gmeiner, chairman of the town’s Water Commission.

Despite the similarities, Gmeiner said, he believes there is a taste difference in the water delivered by the suppliers. He noted that he has never done an official taste comparison.

Wayland, at about $916 a year, is among the area communities with the highest annual water bills. That is mainly because of capital improvements made to the water system, said Tom Abdella, chairman of the town’s Board of Public Works.

The town built a $10 million treatment plant in 2006,and the construction bonds are still being paid off. Wayland also spends about $500,000 a year on water mains, gates, and valves, he said.

Water use is at 65 gallons per day per person, which is what the state wants communities to be at, or below.

“We have some homes in Wayland that are enormous and use a tremendous amount of irrigation water,” Abdella said, as well as small homes with one person that use little water.

Water in the Boylston Water District is among the cheapest in the state, at an average annual cost of about $158.

“We have a small number of users and not much overhead,” said Teresa Prunier, chairwoman of the district’s board of commissioners. With about 2,300 households, it serves about half the town. The other half uses wells.

As the state pushes communities and water suppliers to lower usage, the work is paying off. In 2011, about 220 water suppliers met or bettered the daily consumption goal of 65 gallons per person, compared with about 140 in 2006.

Infrastructure repairs, which reduce leakage, and the more efficient toilets and faucets required by tighter plumbing codes have helped, said DEP official LeVangie, who is in charge of making sure communities reach the mandated goal.

If a community fails 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.

There is a wide range in the size of suppliers; the largest operations, which serve the vast majority of the state’s residents, deliver 900 million gallons a day, LaVangie said. At the other end are individuals with private wells, and some towns — such as Carver and Harvard — have 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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