Without Meters, Fresno Water Beyond Measure California is tight on water, but you can't control what you can't measure — and Fresno has no meters. Perhaps that's why residents of the city use nearly three times as much water as the national average — more even than Las Vegas.
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Without Meters, Fresno Water Beyond Measure

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Without Meters, Fresno Water Beyond Measure

Without Meters, Fresno Water Beyond Measure

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Let's turn now to another story. This spring, we're reporting on water in the West. California's in the third year of drought, and many places or even rationing water. We go now to Central California's San Joaquin Valley, where many residents don't even have water meters. Sasha Khoka of member station KQED lives in Fresno, the region's largest city.

SASHA KHOKA: When I open up my water bill, there's nothing indicating how many gallons I used. I just see a flat rate every month of nearly $23. That means even if I left the tap gushing for three days straight, I'd still pay the same amount. And that really frustrates Martin McIntyre, who used to run Fresno's Water Department.

Mr. MARTIN MCINTYRE (Former Head of Fresno's Water Department): Can you imaging what our energy consumption would be like if electricity was at a flat rate?

KHOKA: McIntyre is passionate about water meters. He tried for 15 years, through conservation programs, to bring down Fresno's residential water use. But without meters, he says, there's no way for people to know how much they're wasting. And that's probably why Fresno is among the highest urban water users in the country.

Resident Mary Ann Evans is standing in her front yard waiting for a city consultant to fix her leaky sprinkler. Evans considers herself pretty water-conscious, but she thinks her neighbor is sneaking around at odd hours to avoid the city's sprinkler restrictions.

Ms. MARY ANN EVANS: He's one of those guys that thinks he's beating the system, and you don't get a green grass if you're not watering. It's green.

KHOKA: Evans says her neighbor wouldn't have had such a lush lawn if he actually had to pay to water it. For decades, water has flowed into cities and farms in California's Central Valley through state and federal projects. Martin McIntyre says there's been a long legacy of resisting meters here because many residents assumed water would always be cheap and plentiful.

Mr. MCINTYRE: If you've always had something and it feels free, that's a hard thing for people to give up.

KHOKA: McIntyre even fought for a voluntary meter program, and some 8,000 customers had them installed. But then a vehement group of local taxpayers convinced city leaders to incorporate a no meter policy into Fresno's city charter. McIntyre gets almost teary-eyed recalling the defeat.

Mr. MCINTYRE: The meter opponents succeeded, and meters were banned from single-family residential units. So we had to pull the meters out.

KHOKA: McIntyre had to wait another decade before a group of state legislators passed a law that trumped Fresno's charter. It required certain cities that use water from federal dams to install meters by 2013. But that's still four years away for Fresno. In the meantime…

Ms. MARILYN CREEL(ph): Mrs. Evans?

Ms. EVANS: Yes.

Ms. CREEL: I'm Marilyn. I'm with the city of Fresno.

KHOKA: Conservation-minded residents like Mary Ann Evans, who you heard earlier, can seek advice on anything from leaky toilets to wasteful sprinklers, and a city consultant or two will make a house call armed with wrenches and pliers.

Ms. CREEL: This sprinkler that's right by the sidewalk dropping into the gutter - instantly, we have got wasted water.

KHOKA: Marilyn Creel and Nora Laikam(ph) are part of a small team that's one of the city's few defenses against water waste. Laikam says she's seeing a bump in calls now that word is out meters are coming.

Ms. NORA LAIKAM: Now they're getting a little nervous. Ooh, I've had this leak. I probably should get that fixed.

KHOKA: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing for all Californians to reduce their water consumption 20 percent by 2020. But that can be a tough goal to meet when there are still cities without meters. That includes the state capital. Sacramento's deadline for water meters isn't until 2025.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khoka

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