Editorials

A smarter way for Sacramento to install water meters

Workers with Teichert Construction replace a water main in Land Park last November. The City Council is voting Tuesday night on major changes to water meter installations.
Workers with Teichert Construction replace a water main in Land Park last November. The City Council is voting Tuesday night on major changes to water meter installations. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

It is way past due, but the Sacramento City Council should seize the chance Tuesday night to put in water meters faster and cheaper – saving four years and $65 million.

By completing the massive project by Dec. 31, 2020, instead of the state deadline of Jan. 1, 2025, the cost would be about $250 million instead of $315 million. The accelerated schedule would mean a more immediate boost to the local economy, no small matter. And it would end sooner the unfairness of some residents being billed for how much water they’re using and others paying a flat rate.

This is an easy call for council members, or at least it should be.

Now, about 74,000 of 136,000 residences are metered. By spring 2016, when the accelerated program begins, about 51,200 meters will be left to install.

The new and improved program would start in Meadowview, south Natomas and Del Paso Heights and would feature three major changes. The city will install meters connected to water mains already in the street. It will put fewer meters in sidewalks and more in lawns, which is what most California cities do. And the city no longer will routinely move water mains from backyards to streets as part of meter installation, unless they’re leaking or need to be replaced. That covers nearly half of the 26,000 backyard mains that would otherwise be relocated and generates the most savings, some $120 million.

There are some downsides. There would be an additional cost for eventually replacing 72 miles of backyard water mains. There’s nearly $18 million more for consultants and public outreach because of the additional workload. There would be a delay of at least five years in noncritical improvements at the Fairbairn water treatment plant on the American River.

But these trade-offs are worth it.

City Manager John Shirey is casting the new policy as a response to the record drought. If homeowners are charged for how much water they use, there’s more incentive to conserve. Interim Utilities Director Bill Busath said Monday that meters will make it easier to spot leaks and could allow tiered pricing in which the biggest users pay a premium.

The city’s new approach, however, made more sense long before the Sierra snowpack dwindled and reservoirs dried up.

Sacramento’s water meter program has been messy from the start. The city didn’t begin until 2005, and only grudgingly after the Legislature required meters. In 2008, The Sacramento Bee reported that the utilities department had sidestepped competitive bidding when it bought water meters and lost track of 4,500 of them. An FBI investigation of black market sales of used meters led to criminal convictions.

In May 2011, the city’s own auditor pointed out that backyard water mains were being replaced no matter their condition. Last year, some residents in Land Park and East Sacramento complained of disruption, including construction crews hitting natural gas lines.

While council members can’t go back in time to fix mistakes, they can do the right thing now. That starts Tuesday night.

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