Sacramento to speed water meters, at last

The city is considering significant changes to how it installs water meters, part of major upgrade of the city’s infrastructure funded by rate increases.
The city is considering significant changes to how it installs water meters, part of major upgrade of the city’s infrastructure funded by rate increases. Sacramento Bee file

Finally, the city of Sacramento is taking a serious look at a quicker and cheaper plan for installing water meters.

It’s the right move, but comes rather late – more than three years after the city auditor warned that time and money were being wasted by putting meters in sidewalks and replacing water mains even when they were still working.

In a letter to the City Council on Friday, City Manager John Shirey outlined major changes the city is reviewing:

▪ The city no longer will routinely move water mains from backyards to streets in conjunction with meter installation, and may leave those that are not leaking for another 10 or 20 years.

▪ The city is likely to complete the easiest, least costly meter installations first, including at residences where the water main is in the street in front.

▪ The city will look at putting meters in front lawns instead of in sidewalks. That would save at least $250 per installation, but officials say some residents may object.

Shirey says he wants to speed up the meters so the city can conserve more water during the drought. But these changes make enough sense that it makes you wonder why they haven’t been more strongly considered from the beginning.

It’s doubly disconcerting because Sacramento dragged its feet on water meters for far too long; until a 2004 state law overrode it, the city charter specifically prohibited meters. Even then, the city got off to a slow start, in part because the council didn’t want to raise water rates. It finally bit the bullet in 2012, approving three years of 10 percent rate hikes. That money is helping repay $248 million borrowed last year for water and sewer projects, including for meters.

In nine years of work, the city has put in about 43,000 of the 105,000 residential meters that must be installed by a state deadline of 2025. The city’s goal now is to finish by 2020.

Shirey told The Bee that decisions on the changes will be made in December and that he will ask council members to sign off on them.

While he says he asked for the review in October, public attention on water meters was elevated by an investigative report in the Sacramento News & Review last week. Reporter Joe Rubin concluded that the city has made two costly decisions that are questioned by utility experts and officials in other cities, as well as Sacramento’s city auditor.

One is to relocate and replace backyard water mains as part of the project. While the Department of Utilities says it started with the oldest pipes, City Auditor Jorge Oseguera says that water mains are being replaced “irrespective of their condition or remaining service life.” In his May 2011 audit, he recommended that the full useful life of pipes be obtained before replacing them and estimated that would save $31.5 million from 2011 to 2015.

The other questionable call is to put water meters in sidewalks, instead of in lawns, the way most California cities do it. The audit said that installing meters on customer property would save $42 million by 2025 and would also mean lower maintenance costs because sidewalks wouldn’t need to be torn up.

Oseguera says that by not replacing backyard mains and by not putting meters in sidewalks, the work would go much faster. Rubin reports that Fresno finished installing about the same number of meters as planned in Sacramento in just two years – and did it for only $73 million.

In Sacramento, the current plan would cost upward of $445 million, a figure that includes the related water main work but not interest payments. It’s not clear yet how much the changes might save.

Besides the higher cost, there’s disruption for homeowners, including a few reports that contractors may have hit natural-gas lines. Shirey said the city is working with PG&E to make sure gas lines are located before construction.

And because not all residents have meters, there’s a fairness issue – some customers are paying for how much water they use, while others can use as much as they want for a flat rate.

Besides the new downtown arena, this is Sacramento’s largest ongoing capital improvement project, and one of its most important. The time to get it right is running short.