City Beat

Sacramento to speed up water meter installations

A Placer County Water Agency meter is exposed during at home of Judy Henry during a Water-Wise House Call on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 in Newcastle, Calif. The agency noticed a higher than normal volume of water being used at her home. Leaks – often undetected – rank as the biggest water-waster for residential users.
A Placer County Water Agency meter is exposed during at home of Judy Henry during a Water-Wise House Call on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 in Newcastle, Calif. The agency noticed a higher than normal volume of water being used at her home. Leaks – often undetected – rank as the biggest water-waster for residential users. rpench@sacbee.com

Sacramento utilities officials are proposing to speed up the years-long process of installing water meters in every home and business in the city.

Citing severe drought conditions that show no signs of letting up, utilities officials will ask the City Council on Tuesday to shave four years off the project. Meters can encourage conservation by allowing residents to track water consumption – and by forcing everyone to pay for the water they use instead of flat rates.

City officials had planned to finish installing meters throughout the city by Jan. 1, 2025. The new proposal would allow that work to be completed by the end of 2020. That shorter timeline would save the city $65.3 million, according to a city staff report.

Sacramento has more unmetered properties than any other city in California. While Sacramento leaders had fought for decades to avoid installing meters on homes, most other communities around the state are entirely served by water meters.

Bill Busath, the interim director of the city’s Department of Utilities, said the city has installed just under 74,000 water meters over the past decade – covering roughly 53 percent of the homes and businesses in the city. Another 10,000 meters will be installed by next year through funding that is already available.

That will leave 51,200 meters to be installed citywide under the accelerated plan being proposed by city officials. The first meters under that plan would go into homes and businesses in Meadowview, South Natomas and Del Paso Heights, Busath said.

With the work squeezed into a tighter window, the cost per year of the new policy will be much higher than originally planned – about $60 million a year compared with $35 million under the current plan.

“There’s going to be a lot more of the city that will be under construction,” Busath said.

To fund the increased short-term costs of speeding up the installation, city officials have proposed delaying upgrades and repairs to the EA Fairbairn Water Treatment Plan on the American River. Busath said there is some corrosion and minor cracks in the facility, but that the repair work would be delayed at least five years.

“We’re confident we can continue to deliver water out of Fairbairn during the time that these improvements are deferred,” he said.

Part of the overall cost savings of the accelerated plan would come from delaying the relocation of 12,400 water mains from backyards to the street. However, those mains will one day be replaced at a cost of $87 million, according to the city report.

City crews have been busy in recent months replacing water mains and installing meters, and some residents have complained about the impact of those projects. A 2011 audit also showed that the city could save millions of dollars by cutting back on the number of backyard mains that it replaced.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents Land Park and the central city, said the city is “trying to be a lot smarter” with the new program. “I think it’s a big step in right direction,” he said. “It will save the city money, help us save water and responds to the concerns from some residents of how we could do this better.”

Hansen said the plan does raise questions about whether the city could back off proposed increases in water rates, given the money it expects to save by accelerating the meter installation.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.

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