Meters Would Help Sacramento Homes Save More Water

Officials in California are asking people to use less water because of the severe drought. But about a million people in the state live in homes without the best means of water-use management: meters.

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The drought in California is growing more serious by the day. Yet, one-quarter million homes in California still lack the most basic conservation device there is - a water meter. Nowhere is this problem more clear than in the state capital, Sacramento. Joe Rubin reports.

JOE RUBIN, BYLINE: It's not quite daylight when, at 5:15 a.m., Ron Carpenter hops in his car and begins to patrol the Sacramento neighborhood, looking for signs of lawn watering.

RON CARPENTER: Up here it looks pretty shiny down here. Let's see what this is.

RUBIN: Carpenter works for the city of Sacramento's water conversation unit. More than 60 percent of water use in Sacramento is used in residential irrigation, like this.

CARPENTER: I see a lot of water in the gutter.

RUBIN: To cut down on all that lawn watering, the city has limited sprinklers to two days per week. Today is a no-water day. First-time violators just get a warning. But fines for repeat offenders quickly climb to $1,000.

CARPENTER: Definitely, the sprinklers have been on with no doubt. No question about this one.

RUBIN: One of the reasons Sacramento is putting so much energy into enforcement is because the city lacks a critical conservation tool most Californians have had for generations - water meters. Meter customers typically used 20 to 30 percent less water. But only about half the homes in Sacramento have meters. And the city doesn't plan to finish installing them until a 2025 state deadline.

PETER GLEICK: The truth is it's ridiculous, in the 21st century, for us not to be measuring, and monitoring and managing properly, the scarce resource that is water.

RUBIN: Peter Gleick heads the Pacific Institute, a California nonprofit think tank focused on water policy. Given the severe drought, Gleick and several newspaper editorials have called for the state to move up its water meter mandate. In this Sacramento neighborhood, residents are getting water meters installed for the first time. But while some other California cities like Fresno have installed meters quickly and cheaply, Sacramento's project is both expensive - nearly half a billion dollars - and very time-consuming. There are two things which make the job so involved. In the first place, officials decided to set the meters inside sidewalks rather than landscaping them into lawns. And that means a lot of sidewalk demolitions, as is happening at this noisy job. But the biggest reason getting water meters installed is taking so long is because the city says they have to relocate 170 miles of back alley water mains to streets. It's only after those water mains are replaced that water meters are installed.

CHRIS POWELL: You're either going to pay now or you're going to pay later.

RUBIN: Chris Powell, construction supervisor for the city's Department of Utilities, says to understand why that is necessary, think of aging water mains the way you would an old car.

POWELL: OK, at 10 years, you start making that decision - well, do I keep putting money into it and keeping it going? - knowing that eventually, you're going to have to buy a new car.

RUBIN: But just a few miles away, Sacramento's neighbor, the city of Elk Grove, is approaching their water meter job completely differently, as worker Richard Salas explains, because they're neatly placing meters in lawns, there are no sidewalk demolitions here.

RICHARD SALAS: Here, I just bring in sand and rock and, using a little bit of native dirt, put the sod back in. We'll come back and reseed it, fertilize it, water it, and it'll be done.

RUBIN: And as is common in Sacramento, this house also has a water main in the back instead of in front of it. But rather than spending a lot of money and time replacing it, Elk Grove water district general manager Mark Madison says it's fine. His workers are attaching a water meter to it and moving on.

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: I'm making the connections right now to the water meter.

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MARK MADISON: In our opinion, there are backyard mains that are OK. Typically, you would want to relocate a backyard main because either its condition is poor, or the nature of that particular main, relative to property, represents a liability to the agency.

RUBIN: Because of the simplicity of Madison's approach in Elk Grove, his water district plans to be fully metered this summer. Sacramento actually had a chance to simplify its approach several years ago. That's when the city's auditor put out a report that said water mains were unnecessarily being replaced. But the Department of Utilities disagreed with the audit's findings and is sticking with its plan despite the urgency of the drought. For NPR News, I'm Joe Rubin in Sacramento.

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