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California Communities That Pay a Flat Rate for Water Use More of It

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Homes and businesses that pay a flat rate for their water use more of it, per capita. (NVJ/Flickr) http://www.flickr.com/photos/natej/3273769256/
Homes and businesses that pay a flat rate for their water use more of it per capita. (NVJ/Flickr)

By Mina Kim and Molly Samuel

For generations, water meters have been an important tool for measuring how much water we use in California, and the drought has intensified the significance of that measurement. But in 42 communities, homeowners and businesses don’t have water meters installed. That adds up to more than 255,000 customers who pay a flat rate for their water.

Paul Rogers, the environment reporter at the San Jose Mercury News and managing editor of KQED Science, found that the flat-fee customers use more water, as he wrote in the Mercury News:

People without meters are charged a flat monthly rate in those areas for water, usually between $20 and $35 a month. And those communities use 39 percent more water per capita than the state average, according to an analysis of state Department of Water Resources records by this newspaper.

“The city with the most unmetered connections is Sacramento,” Rogers told KQED’s Mina Kim. “Only half of Sacramento’s connections have meters on them.” Bakersfield, Modesto, Lodi and Merced also have a significant number of unmetered connections. The first water meters began going in around World War I, so the communities with fewer meters lag far behind the rest of the state.

“Most of the big cities in California, including San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles have all had meters on all their water connections since at least the 1940s,” Rogers said.


Part of the reason, he explained, is poverty. Farm towns like Hanford, Shafter and Corcoran in the Central Valley haven’t had the money to put in meters. But that’s not the case everywhere.

“The big cities, some of this is ideological. Over the years they have fought attempts to put in meters,” he said. “Some people worried it would increase their bills. Other people, particularly in the Central Valley, were worried that if they saved water, more of it would go south to Los Angeles.”

In places where meters have gone in, water use has dropped. “Fresno finished putting in water meters last year and their daily water use per capita was 313 per person in 2012, and now it’s 245 gallons per person,” said Rogers.

“If you use more, you pay more, and that’s something that is a really important incentive,” he said. “It would be like going to the gas station and just paying $10 or $20, no matter how much gasoline you bought, whether you’re driving a gas-sipping economy car or a Hummer.”

All homes and business in California are required to have water meters by 2025, according to a law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But, Rogers adds, there are other types of water users in California that don’t have meters and don’t fall under that law, including farms and individual units in apartment buildings.

Hear an edited version of their conversation, including an explanation of how Rogers figured out water use in places without water meters.  

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