In 1920, the city of Sacramento amended its charter to declare that "no water meters shall ever be attached to residential water service pipes," and ever since, water meters have been fighting words here in River City.
But the days of Sacramento's wide-open spigots may be twisting shut. The city finds itself practically alone in its fight to perpetuate the flat rates that charge people the same no matter how much water they use.
A bill pending in the Legislature would require 51 unmetered cities and water districts, including Sacramento, to charge homeowners based on the amount of water they use. The bill, AB 306 by Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), gives cities until 2009 to install meters and start volume-based billing.
Kehoe calls mandatory water meters a "simple but essential first step" to stretching supplies in a drought-prone state.
But in Sacramento, at the confluence of two major rivers, city officials estimate that complying with such a law would boost the average residential water bill -- now $17.85 a month -- by 50% to 60%.
Last month, the City Council's legislation committee voted unanimously to oppose Kehoe's bill unless it is amended.
"When people pooh-pooh how much cost is involved," said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn, "I don't think they're being realistic. It's going to be a huge, huge cost."
Others say Sacramento is inflating costs and unreasonably resisting something that most of California has already embraced. Water meters are pervasive in Southern California; every home in Los Angeles had a meter by 1905.
Without meters, said Barry Nelson, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, homeowners often can't even figure out if they have leaks.
"Sacramento among large cities stands alone," he said. His group endorses Kehoe's bill, as do several other environmental groups and the Assn. of California Water Agencies.
Most unmetered communities are in the Central Valley. Among them are Turlock, Woodland, Parlier and Visalia. But the only other water purveyor besides Sacramento to officially oppose Kehoe's bill is the South Tahoe Public Utility District, which figures it can conserve water more cheaply by paying residents to rip out lawns.
Even Fresno and Modesto, longtime bastions of unrestricted sprinkling, are ducking out of this fight. Their resistance has eroded in the face of a 1991 state law that requires all new homes to include water meters -- it doesn't require that the meters be read -- and a 1992 federal law that requires meters in cities that buy water from the federal Central Valley Project. Fresno is a CVP customer.
Modesto has taken a wait-and-see approach to Kehoe's bill, said Deputy City Manager George Britton. Fresno has endorsed it. That's in part because it would end Fresno's tug-of-war between federal water managers who mandate meters and the voters who amended the City Charter to forbid water meters on single-family homes. If signed into law, Kehoe's bill would override Fresno's ban.
Historic hostility to meters dates to an era when "the Central Valley had tremendous supplies -- in fact, some would argue excess supplies -- of extremely low-cost water," said Martin McIntyre, director of Fresno's Department of Public Utilities. "Now there are strains on virtually every area of the state in terms of water supply."
McIntyre said he believes Fresno can retrofit 80,000 homes in four years at an average cost of $500 per home. Meters will probably ease consumption by roughly 20%, he said, saving the city several million dollars a year in pumping and treatment costs. "At the end of five years, the total cost of operating the system with meters will be less," he said. "The average bill will not go up, and those who conserve will pay less."
Sacramento officials paint a much darker scenario. City engineers figure there are 110,000 unmetered homes that would cost an average of $1,000 each to retrofit. They put the total price tag of complying with Kehoe's bill at $260 million, however; they figure it will cost an additional $160 million to speed up the relocation of major water pipes to meet the legislation's proposed deadline. Those figures do not take into account any savings from reduced pumping or treatment.
Sacramento officials say they're not philosophically opposed to water meters. And they acknowledge that residents use more water than most Californians. In nearby Davis, Stockton and Vacaville, homes are metered, and the average household uses 12,700 gallons per month, compared with at least 17,000 gallons per month in Sacramento.
"I recognize there will be some savings," said City Councilman Cohn. "But the question is the cost-effectiveness of doing that."
What city leaders want, they say, are amendments to Kehoe's bill to give them a 30-year span in which to retrofit homes. That's enough time, they say, to install the meters on older homes as city crews systematically relocate aging water pipes from backyards to streets, a long-term project already underway.
They also say that the benefits will be enjoyed statewide at extreme cost to Sacramento residents, so they ought to get priority for money from statewide water bonds to help offset the cost of retrofitting.
Sacramento's plea hasn't generated much sympathy. Kehoe's bill passed the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee 16 to 3 and the Assembly Business and Professions Committee 9 to 4.
Its next stop is the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), a former city councilman. Well-regarded by environmentalists, Steinberg said that on this issue he will "first and foremost represent my constituents."
"The underlying policy does have merit," he said. "Water meters are another form of conservation.
"But I don't think it's fair to take a city that's lived by certain policies for many, many years ... and put the huge expense of retrofit on ratepayers. That's where I draw the line."