Like it or not, a new era comes to Fresno on Monday. Workers will begin installing the first of more than 100,000 residential water meters in a city that for decades has charged flat rates for unlimited water use.
Metered water bills, however, may not begin arriving in mailboxes for months as the city completes a major overhaul of its billing system.
City officials said Monday is a historic day in Fresno, where some residents have fiercely opposed meters, even writing a prohibition into the city's charter. State law and a federal water contract finally forced the issue.
"Meters are coming, whether people want them or not," said Public Utilities Department assistant director Robert Andersen, who is overseeing the installation project.
Once in operation, the electronic meters will transmit readings every six hours to city computers. Andersen said the meters are accurate and won't generate the controversy that has plagued PG&E's efforts to electronically read its electric meters.
"These are meters that have been used and tested for years," Andersen said.
Two neighborhoods -- one near the Tower District, the other in central Fresno -- will be part of a pilot project to see if the meters work as advertised. Each neighborhood, a half-mile square in size, has about 500 single-family houses.
Ten houses in each pilot area already have meters, installed recently by two companies hired by the city. City officials wanted to make sure the companies did quality work.
City officials said it should take several weeks to install the meters and test their accuracy. If the meters pass, crews from the two companies will get the green light to install meters elsewhere.
Crews will begin work in central Fresno and, moving clockwise, follow a schedule that culminates in late 2012 in the northeast.
A 2013 deadline
City officials said installing the meters is the easy part. The more time-consuming task is installing the meter box, usually in front of the house. City officials said all Fresno homes should have water meter boxes -- installed by two companies, one of them also doing meter installations -- by fall 2011.
About 24,000 single-family houses already have water meters, most installed over the past 18 years by state law in newer homes. These meters are not currently being read. City officials said all of these meters must be replaced because they are too old or aren't compatible with the city's new meter-reading system.
If all goes according to plan, each single-family house in Fresno will have an operating water meter within 30 months.
But nothing has been easy in the city's rocky journey toward the pay-for-what-you-use world of water consumption, and these next steps are no exception.
City officials are confident their contracted crews will finish work by January 2013. That is the federally mandated deadline if the city wants to continue receiving 60,000 acre feet of Central Valley Project water every year -- about 40% of the city's annual need.
But behind the scenes, city officials are hustling to overhaul a seemingly mundane yet pivotal piece of the transformation -- billing.
Revamping water bills
Residential customers currently receive a utility bill every two months that includes a flat-rate charge for water based on lot size. The billing cycle is based on when a customer begins service. This means next-door neighbors may receive utility bills in separate months. City officials said they want to reform billing at the same time they reform how residential water is priced, going to uniform monthly billing.
The new bills will continue to include sewer and garbage fees in addition to water. A company has been hired to print and deliver the bills.
Making those arrangements will take time, and residential customers in the pilot areas won't immediately begin getting metered-water bills, city officials said. They said the new monthly bills should begin arriving before the end of the year.
As the citywide installation and billing project works out the bugs, city officials said, customers will begin getting metered water bills soon after meters are installed.
For two months, each residential customer with a new water meter will get two bills -- a flat-rate charge, which they must pay, and a metered bill showing what the customer would have been charged. City officials said this will give customers an opportunity to adjust consumption habits before going to the metered rate.
Public Utilities spokeswoman Ann Kloose wrote in an e-mail that the city had hoped to send metered bills to customers in the two pilot project areas this summer. That won't be possible until the billing system is revamped, she wrote.
"We want to be sure the information and data that is being read and transmitted is done so properly and accurately," Kloose wrote.
Highest per-capita use
Fresno for years has charged metered water rates for industrial, retail and commercial users, as well as multi-family structures such as apartments.
The City Council in November approved the new residential water rate of 61 cents for every 100 cubic feet of water -- 748 gallons.
The monthly bill also will include a set charge based on the size of meter required to connect to the water pipe. City officials said residential water pipes range from three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches, with larger pipes generally found on large home lots.
City officials said the metered rate is designed to be revenue-neutral when spread across the approximately 110,000 single-family houses. This means that some customers will pay more than they do under Fresno's fixed water rate, while others will pay less. City officials said the size of the bill depends on whether customers are stingy or extravagant with their water use.
Last August, The Bee analyzed data collected halfway through the city's yearlong study of 70 volunteer households with water meters. The analysis suggested that homeowners on small lots could pay more with meters and those with large lots could pay less, even though the average isn't expected to change much.
Under the flat-rate fee structure, people with bigger lots pay more. This could provide more opportunity for people on bigger lots to adjust their consumption under metered rates and lower their bill.
City officials said the completed study found that the average monthly water bill among the 70 households with meters was about $2 less than the monthly flat-rate bill.
Customers now pay the same rate whether they use 100 gallons of water a month, or 10,000. According to Public Utilities, a typical Fresno residential water customer pays $28.32 per month.
The department estimates that residential customers on the metered rate will pay about $19.61 per month based on use of 7,480 gallons of water. Customers who use 37,400 gallons per month would pay $44.01.
According to city officials, Fresno's average daily water usage per person over a 10-year period was 300 gallons, compared to 243 gallons per person in Clovis, which has residential water meters. Among the state's 10 largest cities, Fresno ranks No. 1 in daily per-capita water use, city officials said.
City officials said Fresno's per capita water use has been dropping in the past few years, in part because of the drought. With residential meters in use, they said, the goal is to reduce per capita consumption to 240 gallons a day by 2020.
While most of the state has embraced residential water meters, some Fresnans balked at the idea.
The San Joaquin Taxpayers Association about four years ago filed a lawsuit trying to stop residential meters, alleging in part that the meter mandate in the city's 40-year federal water contract violated a provision in the city charter. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in December 2006.
Accepting the inevitable
Several residents in the pilot neighborhood near the Tower District said they've accepted the inevitability of water meters.
Robert Lopez said he already practices water conservation. He was washing his flatbed truck on Wednesday afternoon in front of his house on the 1500 block of College Avenue, and handled the hose with such skill that the gutter barely got wet.
"The people who use more water should have to pay for it," Lopez said.
Walt Tyson, who lives on the 1300 block of Popular Avenue, said he has a simple formula for judging the meters.
"If they save money, it's good," Tyson said. "If they don't save money, it's not worth [expletive]."
Efren Castellanos may represent the typical homeowner in the new water era about to hit Fresno.
For more than a decade, Castellanos and his family have lived in a 1920s-era three-bedroom house on a corner lot on Glenn Avenue. Castellanos said he has spent many happy hours restoring his home's interior. He clearly takes the same pride in his yard, highlighted by a lush green, well-maintained lawn.
Residential water meters are the law and he will accept the inevitable, Castellanos said. But, Castellanos said, he's not inclined to let the meters destroy one of his joys in life.
"I'd rather keep my yard nice and green," he said. "If that costs me only another $20, I'll pay it."
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