Dan Morain

Dan Morain: A call long ago to install water meters

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

J.Q. Brown, Sacramento’s public works director circa 1920, had a bold vision, one that resonates to this day: Water lawns no more than every other day, and install water meters.

My predecessors at The Bee denounced him.

“Green lawns should not be deprived of water,” The Bee wrote in a July 10, 1920 editorial. Observing that “plenty of water runs by Sacramento in the river,” this paper contended that Brown’s proposal would “blight the emerald splendor of said lawns.”

“Any householder knows that one day’s neglect to sprinkle his lawn during August, for instance, particularly if the north wind be blowing, is harmful. A few days’ neglect manifests itself in a straw color in patches,” The Bee wrote, reflecting a view that, for some people, hold sway to this day.

Eight decades later, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, doing the bidding of his constituents, helped structure the deal that requires Sacramento to install water meters at all residences.

In the fullness of time, that is.

The deal won’t go down in the history of California water wars as particularly momentous. But the upshot helps explains why California, the Sierra snowpack at historic lows, finds itself in its parched predicament. Politics being what they are, leaders put important matters off in good times. Then the crises come.

California was reasonably wet in 2003 and 2004. There was no thought of declaring a drought.

Then Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, a Democrat from San Diego, introduced a bill in 2003 to require several cities, but primarily this city of trees, lawns and well-watered driveways, to take the seemingly modest step of installing water meters.

Under her proposal, the city would get 10 years to comply, until 2013. If she had succeeded, Sacramento would be fully metered by now. If the experience of other cities is any guide, water use would be down by 20 percent, maybe more.

“They had a load of arguments about why this wasn’t a good thing to do,” Kehoe said. “There was an us-against-them thing. They were wondering why I, a legislator from San Diego, was nosing around in their business.”

In 2003, Steinberg chaired the Assembly Appropriations Committee, through which all legislation of any significance must pass. He had no trouble invoking the riparian rights of our river city and stopping Kehoe from imposing her will.

Hailing from perennially water-short San Diego, Kehoe persisted, returning with another version in 2004. By then, Steinberg was a lame duck. But he offered a compromise: delay the deadline for full compliance until 2025.

Steinberg still spoke out against the measure. And in a rarity, he aligned himself with Republicans and voted against Kehoe’s bill, the only Assembly Democrat to do so.

But the delay made it less onerous for Sacramento and other affected cities, including South Lake Tahoe, Woodland, Lodi, Elk Grove and Galt, so leaders of both houses allowed it to pass.

“I was representing my district and also mindful of the larger issue,” Steinberg recalled last week.

Today, the Sierra snowpack is at its lowest at this time of season in more than 50 years. Streams are being closed for fishing. A submerged ghost town has re-emerged at Folsom Lake. State officials announced Friday that the State Water Project allocation for users south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will be zero this summer.

And Sacramento is a decade away from having completed what other cities in the state and nation long ago did: installing meters so it can monitor and charge for water based on usage.

The city set about installing meters in 2005, but it is paying a price for delay. In 2003 and 2004, the estimated cost of installing meters in 110,000 Sacramento homes was $110 million, plus the cost of replacing 209 miles of water pipes, many of them 90-plus years old, that run through the backyards of people who live in leafy older neighborhoods.

Using money from ratepayers, loans and bonds, Sacramento has spent $102.5 million on meters so far. By the time the city is done, officials say, the cost will have exceeded $416 million.

The meters that have been installed, along with other conservation efforts, evidently are having some an impact. Per capita water use has fallen to 218 gallons a day, down from 279 gallons per person in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

But Sacramento’s use still is above the statewide urban average of 196 gallons per person per day. It’s significantly above Los Angeles’ 152-gallon, and San Diego’s 166-gallon per capita daily use.

The point is not so much that Sacramento is aquatically incorrect, though there is no excuse for not having meters. We all have our Chinatowns.

Los Angeles conserves now, but sucked the Owens Valley dry. The Bay Area draws its water from Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park. In Davis, where I live, water is so hard that many residents use water softeners, which spoil the discharge with salt.

Everyone likes green grass and lush trees. But the drought reminds us all of the need to be stewards of our state, including people who reside at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.

In the coming days, Steinberg will respond to the drought by proposing to use $500 million in bond money to jump-start certain water projects.

He, Speaker John A. Pérez and Gov. Jerry Brown will work to reshape a water bond, possibly for 2014 ballot. There may even be a little money to help Sacramento speed the installation of water meters.

J.Q. Brown would be nodding in agreement, wherever he is.