It may seem like a waste, but it's time to have that talk with the kids

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My daughters are now 14 and 15, and I guess I've put off "the talk'' long enough.

I believe you know the one I'm talking about. They're at an awkward age now, but the consequences of ignoring the issue are too great for me to avoid it any longer.

I am speaking, of course, of water usage.

I'm one of the 60,000-plus residential customers of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority who got the mailing about our rates going up starting Wednesday. I already knew that because this newspaper ran a story way back in October headlined: "City Authority Sets 4-Year Rate Hikes; Prices to Rise 20 Percent by 2017 to Cover Capital Projects.''

I'm not one of those dreamers who expects rates to never go up. About half the city's water lines predate World War II, and the average age of a sewer line is 70. That's as old as Mick Jagger, as I'll soon explain to my children. We have to do something to fix a chronic regional problem (too much water in the wrong places), and I certainly prefer this to the problem that America's Sun Belt/Drought Belt faces: running out of water, period.

Just because I accept it doesn't mean I buy the PWSA storyline that this rate change is no big deal. The average residential customer will see the combined water-and-sewer conveyance fee increase by just "14 cents per day,'' the mailing says. What it doesn't say is that the Allegheny County Sewer Authority is raising its rates 17 percent, too.

Or, as I'll put it to my daughters, "The water bill is going up more than 65 bucks a year! You know how many iTunes you can buy with that! You'd better listen, and listen good: The Era of the 10-Minute Shower shall cease forthwith!"

Or words to that effect.

If I'm reading the mailing right -- it's about as clear as the Monongahela after a heavy rain -- most of the water we're using is going to cost around a penny and a half a gallon, once that expensive minimum charge for the first 1,000 gallons circles the drain. My family uses anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 gallons each month, according to our last water bill, and finished slightly under the regional household average of roughly 4,000 gallons a month for the year.

We can do better, and thus I shall soon embark on a series of dinnertime lectures to my offspring. The working titles of the first three are "Cleanliness Is Overrated,'' "The School Rest Room: An Untapped Treasure'' and "Teaching Our Dog to Eat Snow.''

I don't expect any of these to be an easy sell, but most of you reading this are in the same leaky boat. These rate hikes are only the beginning. Alcosan, working on a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to stem all the untreated sewage we send into our rivers, plans to increase rates 11 percent in each of the next three years to raise the capital to, ahem, cut that stuff out.

I offer these rough drafts of my conservation pitches as a public service:

"Girls, you know your father loves you. No matter what happens, that will never change. If, for instance, you didn't smell quite so sweet, or your hair became a little oily, I'd still love you ...''

OK, so maybe that one needs work. How about this?

"When I was your age, I hardly ever used the bathroom at home. I much preferred the rest room at school and the locker room showers. I guess I'm just a people person ...''

Yeah, I know. That sounds like the villain in an after-school special. Even if my girls bought that pitch, we all might wind up in therapy, which would cost more than 1,000 gallons of Evian.

Still, we need to do something, so Thursday night I took the dog's dish outside to scoop up some snow from the side yard. I set it down, and Teddy gave me a long stare that seemed to say, "Are you kidding? That's not even filtered."

Anyone have any better ideas? I'm flush out.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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