The Riggs Report: Sacramento’s drought-driven makeover

Water meters, once unthinkable, are part of the ‘new normal’

California’s persistent drought is getting a lot of national media attention of late. Just this week, the New York Times took a detailed look at the state’s post-recession growth, and how that recovering prosperity is raising questions about how to manage scarce water supplies.

“It is forcing communities to balance a robust demand for new housing with concerns that the drought is not cyclical but rather the start of permanent, more arid conditions caused by global warming,” observed reporter Adam Nagourney.

It’s an updated version of an old conflict; how to balance economic and population growth with concerns about protecting the environment. What is new, as the Times outlines, is how the drought is transforming not just the landscape, but also the very business of how we live, work, and think in the West.

A prime example is the ambitious and accelerated program in the City of Sacramento to install water meters citywide. Originally the goal was to complete meter installation by 2025. Driven by drought worries, the city is now working on a new timetable to complete the work by 2020.

It’s an infrastructure facelift that will lie beneath the city’s residential streets and commercial districts. For now, heavy equipment and crews in hardhats dot the landscape and roadways. Currently, the city has installed about 55 percent of the meters. Can it meet the deadline in just five years?

“We can,” Dan Sherry, Engineering Division Manager for the Utilities Department, told me. “If we get really good contractors, we can make that happen.”

Sacramento, one of the last major cities in the state to use flat rates, is being forced by state law to make the meter conversion. Assembly Bill 2572, signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004, carries that mandate. But Sherry said he believes that, with drought concerns, the city would have pursued the change anyway.

That is a significant shift in a city whose charter was changed in the 1920’s to specify that meters would not be used. It was a political philosophy of entitlement that reflected times of plenty.

“When you live on two major rivers, and you go down the river, you see there’s plenty of water, you just feel it’s kind of your God-given right to use it,” Sherry said, in describing the old mindset. “Over the last few years, there’s been a real change in philosophy.”

There is distress from some about the change, and the disruption that’s involved. But the drought is also encouraging acceptance of what may well be the “new normal”.

“I think it’s going to be beneficial, being that we’re in a drought, we’re going to force people to conserve and overall be better, I guess, for the city as well,” one Land Park resident told me as construction crews finished up meter installation on his street.

Sherry said the city will be better able to monitor for leaks, and that residents will be able to use a website to check in real time, how much water they are using.

“People are going to pay for what they use. And so that’s just an equity issue. That’s good for everybody,” Sherry said.

What would be better for everybody, of course, is for the rains to return.