my paradox: sell less, serve more

by Megan Degeneffe, SF2011

Soon after starting work at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) I noticed something strange. I work in the Water Conservation Section, a group dedicated to helping San Francisco customers reduce their water use. The SFPUC, however, is funded by selling water to ratepayers. The paradox is clear- I work to sell less of the product my agency sells. The more successful we are at conserving water, the less income the agency receives. At first this seems to be a counterintuitive business model, but the reality of drought and resource-scarcity makes it the only reasonable way to operate.

When I first started my job I spoke with a friend’s father who also works in the utilities sector. He said I should not think of myself as working for a “water provider”, but instead I should try to see my department as one that works to “meet water needs.” Water providers must first evaluate where and how people use water, and then must figure out how to fulfill those needs with available resources. Sometimes, instead of simply providing water, we look for ways to decrease or eliminate the need for water—water conservation.

With population growth our water needs will only increase, and with climate change our water supply level is becoming more unpredictable. Working to meet water needs means focusing on planning for the appropriate use of our water resources, instead of simply trying to sell as much water as possible without regard for the environmental consequences or the sustainability of our supply.

Right now our water supply is plentiful. After a wet year, our reservoirs are full and we can be tempted to forget about the inevitability of drought in this climate. Continual conservation efforts allow us to be prepared for future droughts as many large-scale projects that can seriously decrease demand, such as irrigation and fixture retrofits, cannot be done overnight. Some landscape projects which create long-term water savings can even result in an increase in water needs in the short term because many plants require more water from the beginning to become established.

Although water conservation is undoubtedly smart long-term planning, decreasing the amount of our product sold to our customers still strikes me as a strange feature of my work. It also makes me appreciate one aspect of working in the public sector. The SFPUC as a public agency is not just responsive to private shareholders looking to see profits increase. The agency sets priorities derived from public meetings, hearings, and driven by a commission which includes citizen commissioners. These priorities have included a commitment to active conservation that San Francisco can be proud of.

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