Despite urgent calls for water conservation amid one of California’s worst droughts, more than 255,000 homeowners and businesses across the state can still use all the water they want without paying higher bills.
And nobody even knows how much water they are using.
From Bakersfield to Sacramento to Shasta County, 42 communities in California have not installed the most basic tool of water management — water meters — for all of their connections. People without meters are charged a flat monthly rate in those areas for water, usually between $20 and $35 a month. And those communities use 39 percent more water per capita than the state average, according to an analysis of state Department of Water Resources records by the San Jose Mercury News.
“Everybody I talk to about this is shocked,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., that studies water issues. “I get calls from Europe saying, ‘What? You still don’t meter everybody in California?’ A rational water system would measure and monitor everyone’s water use so it can be properly managed.”
Most California residents have had water meters for generations.
Los Angeles finished installing them in the 1920s. San Jose has had meters on every home since the 1930s. Oakland began installing them in 1906 and was fully metered by 1940.
Communities that have been holdouts are now slowly installing meters after years of resisting for reasons that ranged from political ideology to financial hardship.
But they have another 10 years to finish the job: Under a law signed a decade ago by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all urban water providers are required to install meters on all connections by 2025.
“We know from experience that people with metered connections are more careful with their water use and use less water than people without meters,” said Gleick, who thinks lawmakers should move the deadline to 2020. “It’s long past time that 100 percent of California users were metered.”
Most of the communities that haven’t installed meters for all water customers are in the Central Valley. Sacramento still has 66,245 connections without meters — 49 percent of its connections. Bakersfield has 26,441, or 37 percent, and Modesto has 18,064, or 24 percent.
Some areas are much further behind. Small towns with struggling economies, including Galt, Shafter, Rio Vista and the city of Mount Shasta, all have 80 percent or more of their connections without meters.
But even in a large, prosperous city like Sacramento, plans to require water meters sparked controversy for decades.
“For some people, it’s like going to Alabama and saying you are going to register their guns,” said Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Cal State Sacramento.
“It’s a visceral reaction,” she said. “People in some places view it as a birthright that they have big trees and green grass. They see the water in the rivers, they walk along it, and they raft on it. It’s part of the right of being a Sacramentan.”
O’Connor, who has lived in Sacramento since 1972, said she supports the law requiring meters. Over the years, when state lawmakers suggested that the city be forced to install meters, city officials argued that the cost was too high, or that water they saved would just be sent to Los Angeles.
When the bill mandating meters, carried by former state lawmaker Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, passed in 2004, the only Democrat to vote against it was Darrell Steinberg, a former Sacramento city councilman.
“I was voting my district,” said Steinberg, now president pro tem of the state Senate. “Ten years later, it’s good policy, it’s the right policy, and Sacramento is half way done.”
Steinberg said he isn’t hearing calls in the Legislature to move up the 2025 deadline.
Most Sacramento residents, he added, have come to terms with meters.
“Once meters became a reality and we phased it in, I think people are fine with it,” he said. “If we’re serious about conservation, then we have to create an incentive to help people use less water.”
Sacramento officials are still touchy about the subject, however. Neither the city utilities director, Dave Brent, nor the city spokeswoman, Linda Tucker, would agree to be interviewed about why Sacramento is so far behind other big California cities.
“Monday morning quarterbacking isn’t helpful,” Tucker said in an email.
She noted that Sacramento is spending $416 million to install its meters, which can cost $1,000 each or more because of issues surrounding older homes and neighborhood configurations. The costs were paid for with rate increases and federal stimulus funds, among other sources. The city, now 51 percent finished, expects to be done by 2025.
In January, Sacramento city leaders asked residents to cut water use 20 percent because of the drought. They put in place rules that limit lawn watering to three days a week — and only before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m., with “water cops” ticketing violators. So far, they have seen a 12 percent drop in water use — largely because of the new drought rules and the fact that half the homes now have water meters.
Communities have different explanations for why they’ve been slow to install meters. In South Lake Tahoe, officials had to upgrade sewer systems that were in danger of polluting the lake, and they still need to modernize water systems for fire protection, said Richard Solbrig, general manager of the South Tahoe Public Utility District.
“Basically our community had other priorities that were a lot more important,” he said. “A lot of people get upset when we say Lake Tahoe is different than other places. But the reality is that it is.”
One thing is clear: In places where meters have gone in, water use has substantially dropped.
Fresno, where voters 20 years ago passed a city ballot measure banning meters on homes, finished installing them last year because of the state law. Daily water use has fallen from 313 gallons per person in 2010 to 245, a decline of 22 percent.
Some Fresno residents, however, are not happy.
“With the old flat-rate system you could have a nice yard, and you didn’t abuse it or your neighbors would let you know,” said former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, now an anti-tax activist. “It was an esprit de corps. The bureaucrats want a guaranteed method of a cash register that they can manipulate.”
In Folsom, where voters banned meters in 2002, the city finished putting them in by 2011 and has seen daily water use fall from 429 gallons per person to 367, a drop of 15 percent.
“We were worried that our bills were going to go up,” said Folsom resident Karen Forster, who helped run the campaign against meters. “Our bills are up, but not as much as I expected. You have to watch it. You have to make sure you don’t water your yard too much. But so far, I’m OK with it.”
©2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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