Water meter measure sails through assembly

Legislation to require residential water meters in Sacramento and virtually every other major unmetered California community was approved by the Assembly in a solid bipartisan vote.

By Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau

SACRAMENTO, Calif., May 26, 2004 -- Legislation to require residential water meters in Sacramento and virtually every other major unmetered California community was approved by the Assembly in a solid bipartisan vote.

Within Northern California, AB 2572 would affect Sacramento, Modesto, South Lake Tahoe, Woodland, Lodi, Elk Grove, Galt, Marysville, Oroville and other communities.

"With California's increasing pressure on water supply, we need to do everything we can to conserve water," said Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who proposed the legislation.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton has said that he won't fight AB 2572, which is likely to pass the Senate.

"When consumers know how much water they're using, and they're paying for that water, they conserve on the natural," Kehoe said.

But Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the capital has been effective in implementing voluntary conservation measures.

"Where a city is complying with the underlying conservation objective, I don't think it's necessary for the state to come in and say this is how you have to do it," he said.

The bill would allow meters to be installed gradually over a 20-year period.

Roughly 200,000 to 300,000 new meters would be installed statewide at a cost to ratepayers of up to $200 million.

Passage of AB 2572 by a vote of 56-13 sent a clear signal that the political climate has changed dramatically in recent months.

Steinberg succeeded in excluding Sacramento from water meter legislation last year because he chaired the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which decides which bills survive for a floor vote.

This year, Steinberg is a lame-duck legislator no longer serving on the Appropriations Committee. Unable to kill AB 2572, he negotiated with Kehoe to provide as much of a transition period as possible.

Though communities would have until 2025 to finish installing residential meters, they would have to begin charging at least some customers on the basis of water consumption by 2011. Put simply, the goal is to push cities to begin using each meter within a reasonable period of time after it is installed.

New homes built anywhere in California since 1992 have had to be equipped with water meters, but in Sacramento such devices are largely ornamental. The city continues to charge water gluttons and misers the same monthly rate.

Sacramento would need more than $100 million to retrofit existing homes with water meters, plus $128 million to relocate about one-third of its water mains from back yards to front yards, where meter readers could reach them.

"We have our doubts whether the amount of money spent would result in a significant amount of water saved," said Gary Reents, Sacramento's director of utilities.

AB 2572 and other factors could result in significant rate increases in coming years, but the goal is to keep them under 10 percent annually, Reents said.

Kehoe's bill would overrule any city charter - including Sacramento's - that bans water meters from homes built decades ago.

City officials feel Sacramentans should be left to decide the issue themselves, Reents said.

"The city opposes the bill," he said. "And we'll continue to oppose it in the Senate. But I don't know if the outcome will be any different there."

Supporters of AB 2572 point to findings that meters significantly reduce water usage.

Metered homes in Los Angeles averaged 156 gallons per person in 2002, for example, while Sacramento's unmetered homes averaged 290 gallons, according to estimates in an Assembly analysis of AB 2572.

"The time has come for all of this state to be on water meters," said Assemblyman George Plescia, R-La Jolla.

"I know it's painful for local communities to build new facilities," added Kehoe. "But build they must."

Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, said AB 2572 boils down to Southern California telling Northern California how to conserve.

"It hardly seems right to go out of our way to cause these people to have to spend a ton of money," said Assemblyman Jay La Suer, R-La Mesa.

AB 2572 would apply to unmetered cities or towns with 3,000 or more customers.

If Kehoe's bill is signed into law, any community that refuses to install meters could see the state reject future requests for financial assistance or permits for projects involving wastewater treatment, water efficiency or water storage.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken no position on AB 2572.

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