For the past several years, Lodi residents have seen water mains replaced, lawns torn up and new $300 water meters installed at every home in the city. It's all part of a California law requiring water use to be regulated and paid for on a by-use basis, not a flat fee, by 2025.
But moving earth, breaking concrete and cutting water lines to install each meter is the easy part. Setting up a fair plan for billing is the problem.
Apartments, condos and mobile homes need water meters, too, but they do not each get their own.
If 20 families are drawing off the same line, how can the bill be divided fairly without the expense of installing a submeter on every unit in town? Installing a submeter at multifamily properties would mean going back in, branching off the main water line and adding another $300 meter.
The Lodi City Council met this week to discuss the problem and let residents share their views. In about a month, they'll make a final decision. Meanwhile, a rental property association is doing research and biding their time to see if they'll take action against Lodi for pushing the water billing onto property owners.
There are 4,358 apartment units in Lodi, and 1,117 condominiums. That doesn't count the mobile homes at several local parks. Managers of those locations are not keen to get into the water business, either.
Dustin Totten, who owns several housing complexes in the area, requested that the city not pass billing onto property owners.
"We're in the housing business. To put us in the water and waste business is going to raise costs. Keep billing in the city. Not to be rude, but that's kind of what us taxpayers pay you for," he said at the meeting.
Nearby cities use several different options.
Lance Cook, the water systems superintendent for the city of Stockton, said property owners in his city are not allowed to install separate meters.
"Reselling our water is not allowed. You can't meter individuals," he said. In Stockton, most property owners include the cost of water in the rent by estimating how much water two roommates will use in a month. Adding more occupants will typically raise the rent.
Water meters have been in use in Stockton since the early 1970s.
In Manteca, property owners are allowed to submeter if they are charging tenants just for the cost of water.
"If they're making money off of it, that's illegal," said Eric Medeiros, superintendent of water. "If they're just recouping costs, it's fine."
But from a conservation standpoint, Medeiros said submeters are the way to go.
"If you're in apartment A and you're very water conscious, and I'm in apartment B and I'm wasting water, then you're paying for all of my waste without a submeter," he said.
For properties with only one or two families, like at a duplex, it's easy to track a spike in water use and confront the tenant about it. In that case, a submeter might not be necessary.
In a massive apartment complex with 100 tenants, it's not possible to speak with each one individually about water use. Submeters would be necessary to track individual use.
Those large complexes often have two water mains. One goes for household use, while the other is for water used on landscaping, swimming pools or washing machines.
The Lodi City Council is also questioning how to run a bill for that second line.
Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce recommended that tenants be billed for that water use, because they are benefiting from the beauty of it. It's another decision the council must make.
Some experts say submeters are the best solution, including Michael Foote for NWP Services Corporation, a company based in Costa Mesa that manages utility billing for multifamily property owners.
Foote said more and more units are paying for water separately from their rent. If they are paying a flat rate, residents have no incentive to conserve water.
"From an economic perspective, they have an incentive to use as much water as possible as they are paying a flat rate," he said.
Foote added that submetered billing has the best benefits for conservation.
Other states have approved what are called "point of use" meters. Each toilet, tap and shower has a meter, and the metering system totals the consumption for that unit. But they haven't been approved by state regulators.
A possibility for Lodi might be using the ratio utility billing service. The bill changes each month, based on total water use. That's tallied by the owner. But residents pay based on the size of their place and the number of people living in it.
"If everyone uses less, the amount that is allocated is less and the bills for each unit will be less," Foote said.
Property owners in Lodi are expressing extreme displeasure at the idea they will be responsible for paying their tenants' utility bills, according to Darryle Oakman of the Nor Cal Rental Property Association
Ten years ago, the association successfully sued the city of Stockton, which used to make landlords responsible for having the tenants sewer, water and garbage costs in the property owner's name. If a tenant left or didn't pay, the owner was stuck with the bill. Now, tenants pay their own fees or water is included with the rent.
Oakman said the association does not yet have plans to take action against the city of Lodi. But Lodi will decide in early May just how they'll handle this.
"We're on a fact finding mission," he said. "We're waiting on the decision from Lodi."
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.