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Defiance May Leave Folsom High and Dry

November 10, 2002|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

FOLSOM -- The federal government gave voters here plenty of warning: Don't approve Measure P or we'll cut back your water supply.

On Tuesday, voters called the government's bluff. In defiance of federal law and promises made by city leaders, voters in this growing town east of Sacramento passed a measure prohibiting the city from charging people for the amount of water they use.

The 54%-46% vote defended a popular sprinkle-and-let-sprinkle way of life, in which residents can use as much water as they like for a flat rate of roughly $17 a month. Voters may have been swayed by arguments that spending $5 million to $6 million to retrofit homes with water meters made no economic sense.

The outcome stung the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which quickly warned Folsom last week that it will curtail water deliveries to certain neighborhoods if meters are not installed by 2005.

"We need to make it perfectly clear to everybody," said Tom Aiken, manager of the agency's Central California district. "No meters, no federal water.

"We're not trying to punish anybody," Aiken added. "California is a water-short state, and we've got to implement conservation. Water is a utility, just like power or gas, and you need to pay for what you take."

Southern California and coastal residents have long lived with water meters without complaint. But some folks in river towns resent the devices as an infringement on their way of life.

Experts say that, typically, when customers switch from flat-rate to metered-rate service, one-third of the bills go down, one-third go up and a third stay the same. But the debate is philosophical, not practical. The charters of Sacramento and Fresno, for example, forbid the cities from billing residents at a metered rate.

Sacramento, about 20 miles downstream on the American River, dodged the meter mandate because it doesn't buy federal water. That didn't sit well with many Folsom voters, said Sara Myers, the former city councilwoman who wrote Measure P and organized its campaign.

"So Folsom is supposed to be the poster child for water meter retrofitting when Sacramento sits down there with their flat rate?" she said. "They didn't like that one."

Technically, Measure P does not ban water meters in Folsom. Instead, it prohibits the city from making residents pay the cost of retrofitting homes with meters.

Developer fees could go a long way toward paying for meter retrofits, city officials say. But the rest of Measure P put them in a real quandary. The initiative, in effect, barred the city from charging homeowners a metered rate.

That ban flies in the face of what Congress dictated 10 years ago when it overhauled the operation of the Central Valley Project, a Redding-to-Bakersfield network of dams and canals run by the bureau. The law requires cities and irrigation districts that buy from the water project to install meters within five years of renewing their Bureau of Reclamation contracts.

Some water districts have begun retrofitting homes with meters, even though they have yet to renew their contracts. In the suburbs between Sacramento and Folsom, for example, the San Juan Water District has retrofitted every pre-1992 home that it serves directly, at an average cost of $350, said General Manager Jim English.

"I think there's going to be a tremendous amount of pressure to get in line with others in the region," he said.

The Folsom City Council has yet to decide how to respond to Measure P, which was opposed by the mayor and vice mayor. Assistant Public Works Director Gordon Tornberg called it "a real nightmare." The city promised to install meters when it joined a regional water forum and won permission to expand its water treatment plant.

But in the rustic neighborhood near the American River that stands to be cut off by the bureau if meters are not eventually installed, residents lack remorse.

On Blue Lake Drive, as T. Eisele swept oak leaves from her driveway last week, she said the local electricity utility gives away shade trees to encourage energy conservation, but water officials haven't come up with any method so creative.

"The meter was only one way," she said, "not the only way."

And in the heart of Folsom's downtown, with wooden sidewalks and Old West buildings, antiques dealer Richard Gray predicted that Folsom will meet the bureau in court.

City officials want to install meters, he said, so they can free up water to supply new subdivisions.

"Build the Auburn dam and we won't be worrying about this," said Gray, referring to plans for a big dam upstream that has been studied for a generation but never built.

"When you tell me that, by 2050, we're going to have 30 million more people in the state," he said, "I want to know where the communal baths are going to be."

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