As California’s four-year drought intensifies, municipal water authorities across the state are struggling to regulate household water usage. In the state capital of Sacramento, household gardeners who stray from the city’s strict schedule for sprinkler use can be charged with a hefty fine. Meanwhile, thanks to an outdated metering system, nearly half of the city’s 126,000 residents pay a flat monthly fee for water, regardless of how much they use.
The City of Sacramento Utilities department plans to have every connection metered by 2018, and it has $2.7 million in grants to improve meter technology already in homes. Many Sacramento residents will have to either get used to paying more for their water or conserve — and that’s part of the idea.
“Price turns out to be a very powerful way of telling people how much water they’re using, and encouraging them to use that water intelligently,” says Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst.
Proper meters can also identify unintentional waste. The Sacramento Bee estimates that one in 10 gallons of water is being lost through leaky pipes. “The meters have a measurement for very low flow,” explains Dan Sherry, supervising engineer for the City of Sacramento. With an updated system, residents would get a water bill alerting them to possible water loss, allowing them to identify and repair the leak at their discretion.
To ease the transition for customers who might struggle with a fee increase, those who have been paying non-metered rates will continue to pay a flat rate for another year. They’ll also receive a monthly bill that includes information about how much they would be paying if they were on a usage-based system.
Like many cities, Sacramento has a network of pipes between 60 and 100 years old and in need of repairs. Poor water infrastructure is a problem across the U.S — a report authored by the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that 14 to 18 percent of water may be lost each year “due to leaks, metering inaccuracies, data handling errors, and unauthorized consumption.” But Sacramento’s shortage of meters is especially bad. San Francisco, L.A. and San Jose are all fully metered.
“[Water meters] are a really valuable awareness tool,” says Fishman. “If you get a cell phone bill that’s 98 dollars a month, and they don’t tell you how many minutes, how much data, well, then you just pay the 98 dollars. But if they break it all down, and you find out your phone bill could be 68 dollars if you just move your calls from 5:30 p.m. to 9, well, I can do that!” Meters are the first step to incentivizing water conservation among families. No fine for overzealous gardeners can do that.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.