Was our water safe?

Read Joe Rubin's investigation of the city's costly, mismanaged water-meter install (SN&R Feature Story; November 13, 2014) at http://tinyurl.com/NRWaterMeter.

People seldom think about the city of Sacramento’s Department of Utilities. The DOU has nearly the annual budget of the police department—and one larger than the fire department—and is responsible for life’s essentials: the water we drink, and the wastewater we flush. But it’s a smartphone world, and we take these everyday conveniences for granted.

To that end, oversight of how the DOU gets the job done also has been more than casual. But that must stop now.

Last week, News10 reported that unsafe levels of cancer-causing substances made their way into Sacramento’s drinking water in 2013 and 2014. The DOU allegedly knew about this carcinogen exposure, the result of new chemical tests at city water-treatment plants, but did nothing to stop it. They also didn’t inform city leaders, or the general public, about red flags because of the testing. (Watch the investigation here: http://tinyurl.com/unsafewater916.)

The city has flat-out denied each and every allegation in the News10 report, and city manager John Shirey was scheduled to explain why the allegations are false to council this past Tuesday.

SN&R is alarmed by the report. And, given the long history of the DOU’s mismanagement—and, worse, corruption—we’re demanding that the city call for an investigation of the department and its leadership.

The DOU has a history of serious issues. Last year, for instance, SN&R exposed huge problems with the DOU’s half-billion-dollar water meter install. We found that the DOU was replacing perfectly good water mains and spending tens of millions of dollars more than other cities to install meters. And that project contractors regularly were cutting into gas lines, causing leaks. There was recently even a gas-leak alert on 21st Street near Second Avenue during the final week of October. All this, and we’re still years behind other cities on metering water use.

The unsafe-drinking-water scandal and meter-install problems come on the heels of years of unchallenged rate increases, reports of nepotistic DOU hiring practices (8 percent of DOU staff meet the definition of a relative, according to the city auditor), and even federal bribery charges against the department’s former superintendent (he pleaded guilty in 2008 to accepting kickbacks and profiting off the sale of used water meters).

Yet the DOU is now asking council and voters for even more money, via rate increases, to pay for what it says are necessary infrastructure repairs. These higher rates would bump up the average family utility bill by an estimated $450 annually, according to the city.

But how can Sacramentans know that these repairs are needed? How can we even trust DOU leadership at this point?

The city manager and others continue to defend the DOU. But it’s time for city council to investigate the department. We don’t want excuses or deception. We want accountability. We deserve answers. And we deserve them now.