Ahead of a summer season which is likely to prove to be even drier than the previous one, Emmanuel Macron announced, on Thursday 30 March, the generalization of progressive water pricing, during the presentation of his plan relating to the water management at the foot of the Serre-Ponçon lake, in the Hautes-Alpes, the largest freshwater reservoir in Western Europe.

The strategy includes fifty-three measures, including the reuse of 10% of wastewater – compared to 1% today -, the establishment of an “EcoWatt of water” by the summer, the 10% reduction in water use in all sectors, and the application, therefore, of a progressive water tariff at the national level. “The first cubic meters are charged at a modest price, close to cost” and “then, beyond a certain level, the price per cubic meter will be higher, and this is normal for the consumptions that I I will call “comfort”, to encourage sobriety”, defended the President of the Republic, relying on territorialized experiments.

The price of water today depends on the cost of the sanitation service, distribution and catchment conditions. It is set by each community, which adds the taxes imposed by the State. For 96% of municipalities in France, the tariff is made up of a fixed subscription part and a variable part, which is larger and directly linked to consumption. It is on the latter that the government wishes the generalization of progressive pricing.

Arras, Bordeaux, Dunkirk, Libourne, Montpellier, Niort or even Rouen have implemented this model, for some twelve years ago, for others at the beginning of the year, within the framework of policies which are intended to be ecological in particular. and solidarity. Le Monde took the example of three municipalities to illustrate the concrete application of this measure and its lessons.

For eleven years, the tariff schedule for the price of water in the northern municipality has been divided into three bands: “essential”, “useful” and “comfort”. A cut which “was intended to encourage water saving and to integrate a solidarity component for the most fragile households”, explains Fabrice Mazouni, director of the Syndicat de l’eau du Dunkirk.

So-called “essential” water consumption, which meets basic needs and ranges from 0 to 80 cubic meters (m³) – previously 75 m³ – per household each year, is billed to households at 1.28 euros per meter cube. This cost drops to 0.49 euros per cubic meter, for beneficiaries of complementary health solidarity (CSS ex-CMU-C).

The second tariff band, called “useful water”, concerns consumption between 81 and 200 m³, and is billed at a rate of 2.30 euros per cubic meter. Finally, for uses exceeding 200 m³ per year, the tariff bracket called “comfort water” is invoiced at 3.10 euros per cubic meter. “The goal was to tax this comfort consumption”, which is the fact of “owners of second homes”, with regard to Dunkirk, analyzed Alexandre Mayol, lecturer at the University of Lorraine, whose thesis, published in 2017, focused on the efficiency of water pricing. In the first years, “there was an immediate effect”, assures Mr. Mayol, household consumption fell by 8 to 10 points.

Up to 80% of households are winners, welcomes today Bertrand Ringot, vice-president of the Urban Community of Dunkirk. The 20% “losers” would include those who water their garden with drinking water, fill their swimming pool – a minority in the North – as well as large families. As the tariff is calculated on the consumption of an average household equivalent to four people, larger families are penalized.

To remedy this, a water check was given to the households concerned, but less than 10% of the beneficiaries who could claim it took it, reports the director of the Syndicat de l’eau du Dunkirk. This is one of the weaknesses of the system: the Family Allowance Fund (CAF) not being able to provide the data of its beneficiaries, the modulation of the price according to the composition of the household is impossible. “The generalization will perhaps facilitate the partnership with the CAF of the department”, hopes Mr. Mazouni.

In Dunkirk, the implementation of the system has also been facilitated by the deployment of individual water meters. The majority of collective housing in the municipality, except for small condominiums, have been equipped with it in the space of three years.

The problem in the Midi, “these are the swimming pools, the daily car washes and the watering of the lawn with drinking water”, recalls René Revol, vice-president of the Montpellier water board. To empower consumers, progressive pricing, which he prefers to call “ecological and inclusive”, came into effect on January 1.

The generalization of individual meters being partial, only 33% of water service subscribers are affected by progressive pricing. The bill for 70% to 75% of the Montpellier residents concerned should drop, and increase for 25% to 30% of them, according to calculations by the Montpellier water authority. For the water management service, the three heat waves in the summer of 2022 “raised people’s awareness” of the lack of water.

“As soon as the election campaign for the municipal elections, we explained [the measure] to people and they found it fair enough, so it did not arouse distrust”, still assures today the socialist mayor, Michaël Delafosse, who had integrated it into his program. This new system could allow the municipality to change the pipes and limit water leaks since the profits of the management could increase by 3%, according to their forecast.

For Montpellier residents, from 0 to 15 m³ of annual water consumption is free. A way, put forward by Mr. Delafosse, to “guarantee the right to water”. From 16 m³ to 120 m³, the price is 0.95 euro per square meter consumed, then 1.40 euro for 121 m³ to 240 m³ of water use. Finally, above 240 m³, water costs 2.70 euros per cubic meter.

The calculation of the rate schedule takes into account several factors, including seasonal consumption habits and the average annual water consumption of four-person households, which is between 95 m³ and 120 m³. Although a balance sheet has not yet been drawn up, the management is convinced that the consumption of larger families should not go beyond 120 m³. Pricing for households living below the poverty line provides for the reimbursement of the subscription to access to water, i.e. 18 euros, as well as a preferential rate per cubic meter.

Companies, public service buildings and similar (clinics, private schools, as well as associations) have a completely different tariff scale. For consumption ranging from 0 to 120 m³, the price per cubic meter is 1.03 euros excluding taxes. For consumptions ranging from 120 m³ to 1,200 m³, the price is 1.13 euros and for consumptions over 1,200 m³, the price is 1.19 euros per cubic meter.

The municipality of Gironde implemented “progressive and social water pricing” in 2010. “A militant act”, highlights the mayor in office, the former socialist Philippe Buisson, “to offer a real public service water” depending on usage.

In Libourne, the so-called “vital” consumption of up to 15 m³ per year costs 0.11 euro per cubic meter, while for annual consumption between 16 m³ and 120 m3, the price is 0.56 euro. For consumption between 121 m³ and 150 m³, the rate is 0.62 euro and, above 151 m³, the rate is 0.68 euro per cubic meter.

In twelve years, the mayor saw a decrease in consumption and then stagnation. Now, according to the estimate of the municipality, 14% of Libournais have an annual consumption of less than 15 m³, when 65% consume between 16 m³ and 120 m³ and 7% are in the range of 121 m³ to 150 m³. The other consumers, which exceed 150 m³ annually, are mainly municipal facilities, such as schools, businesses, as well as residences that do not have individual meters.

In the commune of Sud-Ouest – and unlike Dunkirk – businesses and industries, which represent 5% of freshwater withdrawals in France, are included in the progressive pricing system. At the national level, however, the most consuming sector remains agriculture (57%), ahead of domestic use (26%), the only one targeted by the pricing desired by the government. “If we don’t touch agriculture, we miss the target a bit” of a significant reduction in water consumption, considers researcher Alexandre Mayol.