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Sacramento to speed up water meter installations

A worker with Teichert Construction digs a hole on Land Park Drive south of Second Avenue as part of  Sacramento’s  water main replacement project in Land Park on  Nov. 24. Sacramento holds the largest body of unmetered water connections in the state.
A worker with Teichert Construction digs a hole on Land Park Drive south of Second Avenue as part of Sacramento’s water main replacement project in Land Park on Nov. 24. Sacramento holds the largest body of unmetered water connections in the state. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

City of Sacramento officials plan to speed up installing water meters at homes and businesses, aiming to beat a state-mandated 2025 deadline by five years and potentially saving millions of dollars.

Sacramento holds by far the largest body of unmetered water connections in California – about 62,000. These customers are allowed to consume all the water they want and pay only a flat monthly rate of about $41 for an average home. With a few exceptions, all other California communities are entirely served by water meters that measure how much customers consume and bill them accordingly.

This disparity has long been a cause of criticism for Sacramento, which is repeatedly accused of water gluttony while the rest of California makes major conservation strides. Thus, Sacramento’s newfound urgency to install water meters marks a major shift in policy.

City Manager John Shirey said he was motivated to accelerate metering by the ongoing drought, the worst in state history. Although Sacramento made big progress on water conservation this year, it has been difficult to monitor progress precisely and target abusers because the city is not fully metered.

Water meters are widely recognized as a vital water conservation tool, because customers get a powerful price signal when they use too much.

“I think we need to change the priority because of the drought,” said Shirey. “It’s a dramatic change in how we do business.”

He said he first asked interim utilities director Bill Busath in October to investigate speeding up the installation and changing the process. Shirey informed the City Council of the planned changes in an emailed memo on Nov. 21, although the council must still approve the new direction, likely in January.

While thousands of homes could be affected by the change, Shirey said he doesn’t know exactly how many or what the cost difference to the city will be. He does know the meters being installed can be monitored remotely. This not only saves personnel costs but allows the city to track serious water leaks in near-real time, which will improve water efficiency and save the city money.

“It’s certain that we’re going to make changes; we just can’t be specific on how many and what streets and so forth,” he said. “But we’re going to do this program differently.”

The move was hailed by water conservation advocates as an important step for the city.

“I think it will do a lot for their conservation efforts. They should really be applauded,” said Peter Brostrom, chief of the water efficiency branch at the California Department of Water Resources. “Everyone else has made sort of better progress on it. Personally, as a resident who doesn’t have a meter, I look forward to it, because I think my rates will go down.”

Sacramento began retrofitting older homes with water meters after a state law in 2004 required it. Until then, city leaders had actively lobbied against such a law, arguing that with water rights on two large rivers flowing through town – the Sacramento and American – it had ample supplies. And besides, they claimed, any excess used by residents to irrigate luxuriant lawns would merely flow back into the rivers.

Even once required by law to install meters, the city was in no hurry to comply. It planned to use all the available time to meet the 2025 deadline. And until recently, City Council members were reluctant to approve the water rate increases necessary to finance the effort.

“The pace that they were on early on was – how can I say this diplomatically? – quite leisurely,” said Ronald Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a Sacramento-based group that works to protect rivers. “If the drought intensifies, then everybody in the city will regret how slow the pace has been.”

Modern attitudes and more severe droughts helped shift the city’s position. In reality, about 40 percent of the water applied on landscaping in Sacramento evaporates into the atmosphere in summer. It does not flow back to the rivers.

In addition, the city began to face pressure from conservation groups, which warned they would challenge the city for “unreasonable use” of its water rights, a potential violation of state law.

The current drought also challenged city water operations in new ways. Sacramento has long depended on adequate year-round river flows to deliver sufficient water. But December and January of last winter produced the longest rainless stretch in state history. This shrank the American and Sacramento rivers so dramatically that the city’s water intake pumps almost were sucking air. Temporary pumps had to be brought in, and plans were made to lower the permanent pumps at the intake plants.

Being home to the state capital also subjected Sacramento to additional pressure, Stork said.

“Legislators from Los Angeles are living here at least some of the time, and watching the automatic sprinkler systems go on more luxuriantly than they are accustomed to,” he said. “If the drought continues, eyebrows would be raised. So there is some political advantage to the city to be more aggressive.”

Shirey said the city plans to speed up meter installation by focusing only on what’s essential to that effort. Until now, the program has been melded with another historical anachronism: Many water mains in older parts of the city run through backyards, a maintenance headache for city utility crews. In the course of installing water meters, the city has been moving mains into the street to simplify future maintenance.

In many cases, it has moved mains even if existing backyard pipes were perfectly sound.

It was also standard practice – driven by a 2005 City Council directive – to install water meters in sidewalks, not front-yard lawns. This decision requires expensive cutting and repaving of sidewalks.

City officials have been aware for three years they could potentially save millions of dollars by reducing the number of backyard main replacements and installing meters in lawns instead of sidewalks.

A 2011 report by the city auditor’s office determined that backyard mains were being replaced “irrespective of their condition or remaining service life.” Pipes have a useful life ranging from 50 to over 100 years, the audit reported.

Between 2011 and 2015, the audit estimated the city would spend $46.4 million replacing backyard pipes. If the city stopped replacing backyard lines but continued installing meters, the savings over that time period would surpass $31 million, according to the audit.

The audit also recommended that the city reconsider installing water meters in lawns “given the high costs of the sidewalk replacements.” Installing meters in lawns adjacent to sidewalks could save $42 million, the audit found.

Asked why the city hadn’t explored changes to its meter installation process after that audit, Shirey said, “I don’t know. I wasn’t the city manager then.”

Shirey said the city will no longer “routinely” remove mains from backyards. However, those found to be old, leaking or deteriorated will be moved. And he said the long-term goal is to get all meters out of backyards.

Switching meter installation to lawns is not certain, he said.

“We want to be careful with how we proceed with that,” he said. “We want to do some community (outreach) work because we don’t want people rebelling.”

City officials are still investigating the cost implications of the accelerated program, but savings are possible. For example, about 30,000 of the remaining 62,000 unmetered connections in the city have water mains in backyards. Millions could be saved if even a portion of these mains are left in service.

Savings may also be achieved by completing the program sooner. Sacramento Suburban Water District, for example, moved in 2007 to accelerate its metering program. The utility has about 11,600 connections left to go and expects to finish in 2022. Assistant general manager Dan York said the utility estimates labor costs increase 3 percent each year, and material costs also tend to increase steadily.

“If you do it in 10 years, you’ll spend a lot more money,” York said.

Councilman Steve Hansen represents Land Park and the central city, two areas that are a focus of current water main replacements. He called Shirey’s decision to alter the water main program “a big step in the right direction.”

“I know he’s been looking into it, and I want to see more details,” Hansen said. “Getting meters in quicker, getting meters in the lawns and leaving mains in backyards that aren’t at the end of their lives will save the ratepayers a lot of money and shows we’re being smart.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

Map showing status of Sacramento water meter retrofits 
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