The Value of Water

When people think of value they often think the cost. The cost of Louisville Water is comparatively less now than it was in 1860. It is also cheaper than many other metropolitan utilities. Value also often means the importance of something. The value of an ample source of clean water is much more than its cost. This month we consider the value of water.

Today, Louisville Water often shows the comparison of how much water one penny can buy (about 66 servings). Our water is purified by a filtering process and undergoes over 200 laboratory tests a day to ensure it surpasses federal regulations, as well as our own aesthetic standards to provide great-tasting water. Today’s water is much cleaner and healthier and it costs less than it did at the beginning of Louisville Water’s service.

In 1860, the water was drawn from the Ohio River, upstream from local industrial activity, and pumped into a reservoir where, through natural subsidence, it was somewhat clarified. Then it was let into the mains running into the city. That was it. The water was not filtered; there were no tests to see if the water contained any bacteria or other pollutants -- the germ theory of disease was yet to be discovered.

Today, water rates and fees are based on customer class, service area, meter size, elevation and consumption. In 1860, Louisville Water needed a way to charge for its service; at the time, metering was not an effective means to measure water usage. The board developed a schedule of water rents; the yearly charge was based on the different residential and commercial uses. Assessors, employees of Louisville Water, visited every house and business that had water service to see how the water was used and then assigned each a flat rate, or water rent, for the year. One-half of that rent was to be paid every 6 months.

In 1860, household yearly rates were based on the number of rooms it had. Additional fees were charged for other accessories and animals at the household. Today, the typical house in Jefferson County has 5 to 6 rooms and the average, annual residential water bill is about $280. Compare this with the charges from 1860 (at first they might seem to be cheaper) when water for a 5 to 6 room house cost $7 a year -- when adjusted for inflation, that’s about $172. Keep in mind water usage was much less then. People did not bathe every day, there were no dish washers and people did not water their lawns or have washing machines and there were few, if any, flush toilets. If a house did have a water closet (a toilet and wash bowl) that was an extra $2, add in a private bath another $2, if you wanted to take hot baths that would be $3. If you had a cow, add another $1 or horse and it was $2 extra. That adds up to about $12 to $15 -- when adjusted for inflation, the water bill would have been from $296 to $370 in today’s dollars, that’s almost $100 more for untreated river water!

Water charges for commercial operations for the most part depended on the type and size of business:
Barber shops were charged $5 for one chair and $9 for two chairs; hotels were billed $1.50 per room; billiard saloons were $3 per table; bourbon distillers were charged 10 cents per barrel and the number of barrels made was determined by the oath of the people applying for water.

In the 19th century, meters were first used for businesses that consumed a large amount of water. The businesses wanted to pay for water they used. Some were shocked at their first metered bills and thought the meters were not accurately measuring water usage. As the waste of water by those paying a flat rate became more of a concern, more meters were put into place. By 1941, all the services were metered, the day of the assessor was over and each month everyone paid only for the water they used. During the Second World War, with so many men off fighting the war, the meters were read every other month. This schedule remains in effect today. When the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) was formed in 1946, it was decided that Louisville Water would include wastewater fees on its billings and MSD would pay for the billing service – one of the first cost-sharing practices between the two companies.

One popular business in the 19th century didn’t use water to make its product – the distribution of water was its business. Commercial street sprinklers with their horse-drawn wagons and large, barrel-like containers sprinkling water on the dirt roads to keep down the dust were a common site. The sprinkling companies would buy from Louisville Water a pre-determined route to sprinkle. It was then up to the company to sign up enough customers along their route to pay for the service. Arguments ensued when one or another company would sprinkle streets outside of their assigned areas.

Link to The Value of Water digital image collection on Flickr.