St. Catharines residents have increased their use of water at home by close to a million cubic metres since the pandemic began, council learned Monday as it set 2022 water and wastewater rates.

Working from home and other COVID-19 related reasons for staying put is being seen as the main driver for the jump. From 2019 to 2021, residential usage in St. Catharines went up 958,000 cubic metres.

“This trend continued into 2021 as the pandemic went on and it is expected to continue to affect the 2022 consumption level,” said Lucia Chen, manager of budgets and procurement, during the meeting Monday.

Residential customers overtook the industrial, commercial and institutional sector significantly in 2020 as the city’s lead water consumption group.

Their bills will be slightly higher when 2022 water and wastewater rates come into effect, starting March 1, but the city says the rates are still second-lowest in the region.

City council approved the 2022 rates Monday with an increase of about six per cent, with the city’s portion being 1.6 per cent and the Region’s increase the remaining 4.4 per cent.

It means the average household with an annual water consumption of 170 cubic metres will pay $53.24 more than last year.

“What we’re responsible for is 1.6, and that’s a very effective rate we’re able to pass on for our ratepayers today considering the costs that have been incurred,” Mayor Walter Sendzik said.

Niagara Region, which treats water and wastewater and is responsible for bulk distribution, increased its water and wastewater budgets by 5.15 per cent, resulting in the city having to pay more to the Region for purchasing and treating water.

Regional charges represent 64 per cent of the average St. Catharines customer’s bill.

Compared to eight other Niagara municipalities, St. Catharines’ average $943 annual bill is lower than all but Pelham — where the average bill is $1 less at $942.

Port Colborne is the highest at $1,604, followed by Fort Erie, Welland, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Thorold, Lincoln and Niagara Falls.

Chen said St. Catharines residents can purchase a case of 24 bottles of water at the grocery store for $2.97, but they can get a lot more value for their money at home.

“For 85 cents less, residents can not only drink the same amount of water, but they can take a shower, do a load of laundry, do a load of dishes and bathe their children.”

While residents in St. Catharines are using more water at home during the pandemic, annual water usage in the city has generally decreased since 2000 as customers have adopted conservation efforts.

A staff report said annual water purchases from the Region have decreased 41 per cent in that time, to 13.6 cubic metres in 2021 from 22.7 million cubic metres.

The city is still dealing with rising costs for infrastructure replacements, particularly for underground construction works.

Anthony Martuccio, director of engineering, facilities and environmental services, said between 2008 and 2014, the cost per metre of pipe installed underground was in the range of $400 to $800. Today, costs have escalated to the range of $1,000 to $2,000 per metre.

That means budget dollars for underground assets don’t stretch as far as they used to.

Municipal works director Darrell Smith said there were 93 watermain breaks in 2021 scattered across St. Catharines. Municipal works staff also responded to a similar number of private water connections and various valve issues throughout the city.

The city’s 2022 capital budget includes $11 million for watermain and sanitary sewer capital works. Of that, $6.1 million will be funded from the 2022 water and wastewater rates.