Water power

Metering may be a foregone conclusion, but where will the conserved resources go?

Illustration By Charles Nitti

Essay is by Professor Kevin Wehr and the students of a CSUS graduate seminar on environmental sociology

Unfunded mandate is a four-letter word here in the capital city, and the “Water Meter” bill by Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, is exactly that. Passed by the Assembly last week, Assembly Bill 2572 requires Sacramento to spend an estimated $200 million to install water meters throughout downtown, East Sacramento, Land Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

This is, of course, a contentious issue. Many residents are opposed to having their water usage metered, but many also recognize the need to conserve a scarce resource in this semiarid region. Given that the water-meter bill is likely to become law, Sacramento residents must look for the silver lining.

The water-meter issue is not new to Sacramento. In fact, consideration of how residents would pay for water long has been an issue in the region.

The water privileges Sacramento residents currently enjoy are a result of the 1921 city-charter revision. This change stipulated a flat rate for water use rather than charges based on the amount of water used. It is important to note that this provision was added to the charter at a time when Sacramento began to experience major growth. The Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, headed largely by real-estate agencies and developers, was the major advocate of this growth, and members of the Chamber of Commerce also were heavily involved in drafting revisions to the city charter.

The real-estate entities involved in revising the charter had specific interests in ensuring that expenses for the major developments they were planning were low. The developments primarily were large lots in the East Sacramento area we now call the Fabulous 40s. Contrary to current discussions around local sovereignty, water metering in Sacramento was not so much about the city’s autonomy as it was about ensuring Sacramento’s continued expansion (and that real-estate developers reaped the maximum benefit possible from this growth). Unfortunately, the current residents of Sacramento are going to pay the costs of that self-interest. Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky for having avoided the inevitable for this long.

From a purely economic perspective, the cost-benefit analysis of installing water meters is very unattractive. However, with the city’s help, there are several ways to offset consumer cost.

Obviously, consumers can control the amount of money they spend on water, through conservation. Additionally, the city could offer rebates to households that opt for water-efficient landscaping in their yards, that utilize drip irrigation, that have automated sprinkler systems and that install low-flush toilets, all of which help conserve water. The city also should implement a sliding rate scale based on income to ease the financial impact of metering on low-income residents. Such a program would require that the Department of Utilities administer an application process that includes income verification, but such programs are in place in other locales that could serve as models for Sacramento. Lastly, water rates should be seasonally adjusted, with premiums on high-level usage in the summer. In this case, households that use water wisely during the summertime would be rewarded.

From a technological perspective, there is reason to be more optimistic. The city’s sewer system is in an advanced state of disrepair, and the installation of water meters could spur the city to update it. Given that sewer lines run in the same general vicinity as underground water lines, and that major excavating will be necessary to install water meters, it would be very cost-effective for Sacramento to update both sewer and water systems at the same time. To offset some of the costs associated with the retrofit, the city could apply for funding through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, administered by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

However, it’s not sufficient for us to address the issue of water meters from a purely economic and technological perspective. We also should question the underlying reasons as to why water “must” be metered. The normal line of argument is that we must meter our water because of its general scarcity—every Californian has learned since grade school not to waste water.

But Sacramentans live at the confluence of two major rivers and have rights to sufficient water from the American River for many, many years of growth (which hopefully would be “smart growth” rather than sprawl). Isn’t the real issue that there are too many people in places with limited water available to them elsewhere in the state—specifically, Southern California? But even this assessment hides the raw facts: Residential and business users account for only 11 percent of water use. Agricultural users take up three times this amount.

Our water politics in California always have been contentious and always have obscured this truth from most citizens. Profligate use of natural resources always has an effect somewhere; the question is whether we see it. Until we know the ramifications of those downstream consequences, we cannot know the whole story and make reasoned judgments.

Where will the water go if Sacramentans conserve it? For the most part, it will stay behind the Folsom Dam, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation can do with it as it pleases. This probably means it would be sent south through the California Aqueduct. On its way to our thirsty southern neighbors, more than a third of the water will evaporate or be used to create hydropower (it must pay its own way in order to be pumped out of Tracy and over the Tehachapis). Another third will be put to use by farmers for irrigation.

Where in this is the motivation for Sacramentans to conserve? It would be far better for the city, the state Legislature and the Bureau of Reclamation to agree that conserved water would stay in the Sacramento area. Water thus conserved by residents of Sacramento could go to increased flows down the American River, spurring the salmon runs, or to stem saltwater intrusion in the Delta. Citizens would be much more likely to conserve if they knew that their behaviors were having a positive local environmental effect.

Through improved knowledge of water scarcity, attitudes and behaviors favoring conservation will emerge. Since the mid-1960s, pro-environmental attitudes have been high in the United States, especially in the West, as evidenced by the Wilderness Act, the Environmental Protection Act and Earth Day.

While attitudes toward environmental protection remain moderately high, the translation of these values into behaviors has been uneven at best. There is a strong and direct connection between attitudes and intentions, but there is very little concrete connection to behaviors. That is, people may express pro-environmental concerns and report positive attitudes toward conservation activities, but their actual behaviors often do not translate these concerns into practice. They may say they want to conserve water, or fossil fuels, or open space, but they may then over-water their lawns, buy fuel-inefficient vehicles or purchase houses in recently developed urban-sprawl areas.

Price mechanisms, such as water meters, are one way to encourage behavioral changes, but such changes often are short-lived. Non-financial motivations often are more thorough and more persistent—sustained behavioral change on the social level requires more than the passage of a law or a simple price mechanism. People get used to paying more for a product and then return to their old usage rates.

Our efforts to encourage permanent changes in water usage must be related to social norms of inclusion, other-directedness and social responsibility. We can encourage these behavioral changes by providing both information and models of new behavior in a way that conforms to the values people currently hold, and by showing people that they have a stake in the changes. This is clearly a tall order, especially in tight budgetary times when educational measures are curtailed. But it’s more likely to happen if Sacramentans know their conservation efforts will have a direct effect on their own local environment.

Water meters are coming to Sacramento, sooner rather than later, and we would do well to think carefully about the transition. Metering water will be costly, but pricing this scarce resource certainly will help to reduce our water usage—especially if the meters are accompanied by an educational campaign by the Department of Utilities.

It’s necessary for us to make a shift in how we think about water, and this process requires a deeper and more responsible consideration of how we consume nature’s limited resources. If we are aware of all the issues involved, we can develop solutions to an evolving crisis that demands we take action. Through proper planning and involvement, we can limit the costs and find new rewards.

The imposition of water meters on Sacramento does not have to be a negative burden. We have the opportunity to improve Sacramento’s infrastructure while conserving a scarce resource and contributing to a better natural environment, and therein lies the silver lining.

Professor Kevin Wehr, Ph.D., wrote this article with the assistance of students Elyshia Aseltine, Rene Delgado, Greg French, Analilia Gonzaga, Brenda Hofer, Sharyn Lais, Brit Livingston, Ray Ortega and Karl Weidhaas.