West Sac is saving water, but is way behind on water meter use



By Steve Marschke, News-Ledger Editor

As California struggles to deal with a drought, West Sacramento has shown good progress toward meeting the governor’s goal of cutting water use by 20 percent.

But the city is out of compliance with state regulations requiring the use of metered rates to bill its residential customers for water, the News-Ledger has learned. Most local homes are still being billed at a flat rate, regardless of whether they use a little water or a lot.  In most cases, in fact, they’re billed at a flat rate even if they have a meter in place.

That’s in contradiction to the California Water Code.

As in other Central Valley jurisdictions, older homes here were not built with meters installed. There is no way to measure the water being used at one of these residences until a meter is added as a retrofit. West Sacramento is still adding meters to many of its pre-1992 homes, working from neighborhood to neighborhood. For example, this spring contractors installed water meters in front of about 600 homes near Park Boulevard.

The city’s public works director, Denix Anbiah, spoke to the News-Ledger by phone and email this week about the issue.

DENIX ANBIAH, West Sacramento Public Works Director (courtesy photo)

“There are 12,615 residential customers,” he wrote. “We have already installed about 8,400 meters.”

But just because a meter is installed doesn’t mean it’s used for water billing. Right now, residential customers with meters in West Sacramento stay on “flat-rate” billing until they contact the city (617-4575) and ask to go to metered service. Until they do, they continue to pay a fixed service amount regardless of how much water they use. (Local businesses are handled differently; they’re already all billed “volumetrically,” according to how much water their meters show they use.)

So out of 8,400 metered homes and 12,615 total homes in the city, only 910 are currently on “volumetric” billing, said Anbiah. The rest – almost 93 percent of the city’s residences – are  still on the old “flat” rates. They’re neither financially rewarded for saving water nor penalized for using a whole bunch of it.

Even where residential water meters are installed, only about 11 percent of them are actually being used as a basis for a water bill.

Does this matter?

Peter Brostom, Water Use Efficiency Project Manager for the State of California, believes it does.

“The state thinks it’s important for customers to be given a financial incentive to save water, which volumetric pricing provides,” he said. “It’s been shown to be an effective tool in reducing water use – up to 20 percent in some localities.”

Metered water rates are also required by the State Water Code.

West Sacramento’s public works director said he believes the city falls under Section 526 of that code. That section required West Sacramento to be selling water at metered rates to all of  its residential customers by March 1 of last year.

Anbiah acknowledged that the city is out of compliance with this directive, but said the city will be fully metered – and fully using those meters – by 2018. He added that this noncompliance shouldn’t cause major problems for West Sacramento as long as it fixes the problem as it plans to.

“If we are not in compliance, the consequence is that we don’t get a preferred rate the next time we negotiate a (Central Valley Project) water contract, which will go into effect in 2020,” said Anbiah. “We are scheduled to be in compliance by 2018.”

INSTALLED WATER METER (Courtesy of City of West Sacramento)

(Courtesy of City of West Sacramento)

The state’s Brostrom said there could be other consequences for West Sacramento if it stays out of compliance with metering requirements.

“They won’t be eligible for grants and loans (from the state) because they have to self-certify that they are meeting the metering regulations of this code section,” he said. But he added that the State of California doesn’t have an active method to enforce metering or to levy penalties on the city for failing to use meters. “A third party could challenge the city in court on their noncompliance with the law,” he said.

Even without water meters in use for most West Sacramentans, though, a voluntary local conservation drive has started to pay off in the city.   Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. West Sacramento is almost on that mark.

“We are going to the city council this Wednesday and we are going to report 19.4 percent savings,” said Anbiah of the local public works department. That number compares water usage during several recent months with use during the same period here last year.

That conservation rate stands well against savings reported elsewhere in the Sacramento area. The Sacramento Regional Water Authority says “residents in the Sacramento region have reduced their water use by 18 percent from January through June compared to the same timeframe in 2013.” (Their comparison may include a slightly different group of months from West Sacramento’s analysis.)

But as the drought continues and some parts of the state fail to save much water, California is now mandating that some “voluntary” conservation measures become “mandatory.” West Sacramento officials plan a campaign by social media, the city website, digital message boards on the streets, and other means to get the conservation message out.

“State regulations prohibit certain actions – for example, it is illegal to wash your sidewalk or driveways with potable (drinking) water,” said Anbiah. “If somebody is washing a vehicle without a shut-off nozzle at the end of the hose, that is illegal. If somebody is over-irrigating a landscape and if the water is going into the drainage system a significant amount of time, that is illegal.”

Watch for more news on odd day/even day lawn watering rules and other water use restrictions to come out in the near future. (Editor’s note: the West Sacramento City Council approved new mandatory water restrictions on August 6; the News-Ledger will report on those shortly.)

Do you have a neighbor who is still flooding the storm drains with runoff from a sprinkler system?

You can report water wasters by calling the city’s new dedicated message line at (916) 617-4545. According to a city staff report, they’ll be checking these messages twice a day and following up with landowners when necessary.

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