A worker on Sacramento's water-meter project, which aims to install 100,000 water meters citywide over a 20-year period. (Joe Rubin/KQED)
A worker on Sacramento’s water-meter project, which aims to install 100,000 water meters citywide over a 20-year period. (Joe Rubin/KQED)

Like the rest of California, Sacramento is feeling the drought. In this city famous for its big shade trees and plush grass, more than 60 percent of all water use goes for residential irrigation.

To cut down on all that watering, Sacramento has limited sprinkler use to two days a week. And that’s where Ron Carpenter comes in. He works for Sacramento’s water conservation unit.

I join him before dawn one morning, riding along as he scans the streets for illicit watering. It doesn’t take long.

“Definitely the sprinklers have been on,” Carpenter says, crouching down to look at water streaming into a gutter. “No doubt about this one.” And there really is no doubt — we watch as the sprinklers erupt.

More than 3,000 people have contacted the city’s call center since the no-sprinkler days were imposed to complain about water wasters. First-time violators get a warning; fines for repeat offenders quickly climb to $1,000.

Missing a Critical Conservation Tool

Perhaps the biggest reason Sacramento needs to put so much energy into enforcing no-watering days is because it lacks a critical conservation tool: water meters.

A little over half the homes in Sacramento currently have meters. The city is nearly 10 years into a two-decade-long project to install about 100,000 meters, a job it doesn’t expect to finish by the deadline mandated by state law, 2025.

So how did California’s capital city fall so far behind when it comes to water meters?

The idea of metering water has never been an easy sell in Sacramento. In 1920, the city amended its charter to read, “No water meters shall ever be attached to residential water service pipes.”

As recently as 2004, when the state Legislature was poised to mandate water meters, then-Sacramento Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg — today’s state Senate leader — opposed the law and voted against it. He lost that battle, but managed to extend the deadline for installing meters an extra 12 years, pushing it out to 2025.

Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water policy organization, says that delay has major consequences, especially in light of the drought. “The truth is it’s ridiculous in the 21st century for us not be measuring and monitoring and managing properly the scarce resource that is water,” Gleick says.

He adds that when communities adopt water meters, consumption usually drops between 20 percent and 30 percent within a couple of years. Just ask Fresno. The city, which like Sacramento had a City Charter provision essentially banning the use of water meters, was forced to install meters by 2013 as a condition of continuing to get federal water.

The Impact of Metering

Robert Andersen headed Fresno’s project to put in more than 100,000 meters and says the city has already achieved a 17 percent reduction in water use. “We haven’t even gone to the full extent that we wish to,” Andersen says.

In Sacramento, 60,000 homes still have no water meters. But the city says it’s seeing water savings from the ones that do. At the city’s water conservation office, Ryan Geach gets an alert from one of the city’s wireless meters: a house losing 150 gallons per day.

Twice this year, meter alerts tipped him off to toilets that were discharging 4,000 gallons a day — that would be nearly 1.5 million gallons in a year if allowed to continue, enough water for eight typical California households.

“It happens if it’s fully open, the flapper,” Geach says, “and it’s just going straight to the sewer.”

With tens of thousands of homes still unmetered in Sacramento and more than a decade to go on its installation project, it’s likely a lot of water is going down the drain. But the price the city is paying for its marathon meter project goes beyond lost water. The current official estimate for the project’s cost is now $474 million, and some say that’s a lot more than the city needs to or should spend.

Ratepayers will be shouldering the cost for decades. But does it have to be this involved? A phone call to Fresno is instructive.

There, Robert Andersen pulled off the Herculean feat of installing 105,000 meters, about the same number as Sacramento needs. But Fresno’s average cost per meter was just under $700. In Sacramento, it’s about $4,700 and rising.

Andersen says the key to getting the project done quickly and cheaply was to keep things simple. For example, in Fresno, the city put the meters in people’s front lawns. In Sacramento, the meters are being installed in sidewalks. The city auditor estimated in 2011 that the sidewalk meters are adding about $500 to the cost of each meter installation, or $50 million to the cost of the entire meter project.

A Big-Ticket Item

But by far the biggest-ticket item in Sacramento’s installation job is replacing backyard mains: city water pipes that run along the fence line behind homes in older neighborhoods.

Sacramento officials made the decision to combine the installation with a much bigger project: digging up all the backyard mains and relocating them under the streets. Because there are thousands of backyard mains, totaling 175 miles or more, replacing them is a big deal. It means street closures and disruptions to neighborhoods for months at a time.

The city’s rationale for relocating the backyard mains? Many are nearing the end of their useful life, the Department of Utilities officials say. So it makes sense to replace virtually all of them and avoid future maintenance and repair costs.

Chris Powell, a construction supervisor for the department, compares it to a decision lots of consumers have to make: replacing an old car.

“At 10 years you start making that decision, ‘Well, do I keep putting money into it and keep it going,’ knowing that eventually you are going to have to buy a new car,” Powell says. “You’re either going to pay now or you are going to pay later.”

City Auditor Jorge Oseguera challenged that thinking in a 2011 analysis of the efficiency of Department of Utilities operations, and areas where it might save money. The audit flagged the backyard mains as one source of potentially major savings, finding that “mains are being replaced irrespective of their condition or remaining service life” and that the department “has not evaluated or documented the age or condition of all distribution lines.”

The audit noted the useful life of water mains depends on issues like soil conditions, pipe material and climate, and concluded the city could save a lot of money by replacing only the mains that actually needed replacement.

How much money? Oseguera’s audit suggested that avoiding the replacement of backyard mains could cut the cost of each installation by nearly 80 percent. According to the city’s estimates, replacing all those backyard water mains will cost more than $300 million.

The department says it sees no reason to alter its plan. But briefed on this story, City Councilman Kevin McCarty said the council should “take a hard look at the policy” of replacing backyard water mains before the hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds necessary to finish the project are issued.

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