Utility Watchdog in San Diego

Water Archive

A Day in the Life of a Water Meter Reader

Janes-water-meterAt UCAN, we often get calls from frustrated water customers saying their water bill is too high and the numbers just cannot be right. After listening to several of these calls, I wanted to know more! My quest to understand how the city reads 280,000 meters every two months took me on a field trip to Ocean Beach in November, 2013. (Yes, that is a picture of my water meter.)

This adventure was not for the faint of heart. The meters were often hard to locate, very dark and sometimes contained spiders and other deterrents. The City meter readers were very accomodating and patient as I slowed them down covering their assigned area. Here are some notes from my adventure:

  1. Finding the actual meter can be hard because they are sometimes buried under plants and dirt.
  2. The readers use a handheld device for inputting the numbers read off the meter. All meters must be found or else the reader cannot go on to the next property.
  3. If the meter is covered or blocked there is a temporary code to put in but it can only be used three times.
  4. If the number the meter reader inputs for the read is out of a normal range, the handheld will not accept it. This can happen if the meter reader inputs the numbers wrong. The meter reader cannot insert random numbers.
  5. The fronts of the meters were scratched and cloudy yet they were able to read them and input the numbers correctly. I was amazed they could read the numbers correctly.
  6. Remember, these water meters are not smart meters like our electric meter. Every single-family customer meter must be read manually once every two months.
  7. The meter reader had no difficulty reading the correct numbers off the meter. I had to get on my hands and knees to read the meter (young eyes vs. older eyes).
  8. If the meter owner puts anything in the way of meter access, the reader will read the meter and put the obstacle back as they found it.
  9. Sometimes the meter, itself, will be under water due to sprinklers or rain that has not yet drained from the enclosure. Don’t worry - the readers have a device to view the meter through the water.
  10. The Water Department is responsible is maintaining the cover on your box. Contact them if the lid or box has become a hazard.

Here are the things I learned from my adventure:

  1. The job of the meter reader is tough. They have to move fast and cover a lot of ground on a given day. Getting to the meter to read it is no picnic! Getting to most meters is fine, but some?  Oh my…
  2. Don’t upgrade your meter unless you have to.  The old meters are not as accurate and that can work in your favor. The new meters are more accurate and read every drop of water heading your way.
  3. To increase the opportunity for an accurate read, keep the area around your meter clear of obstacles, brush, etc.
  4. If you check your own meter, be careful lifting the lid off the meter box. It is quite heavy.

Thanks to the City of San Diego Water Department for making it possible for UCAN to understand the job of the meter reader. We want to know what it takes to get an accurate reading for consumers.

Learn more about reading your water meter.


Jane Scanlon, January 2014

Energy and Desalination

An Energy Capture Tech To Power The Largest Seawater Desalination Plant In The U.S.

After over a dozen years of legal and regulatory battles, the largest seawater desalination plant in the United States is under construction and will use a technology that recovers and re-uses energy that would otherwise go to waste.

The $1 billion California project, located in Carlsbad in northern San Diego County, will employ Energy Recovery‘s equipment that captures the energy from the highly pressurized water after it moves through the filter to turn sea water into fresh water and gives the low-pressure water at the intake a boost before it move through the filter.

The technology will help the plant save an estimated 116 million kilowatt hours of energy, or $12 million, per year, the company said. Energy Recovery, based in San Leandro in the San Francisco Bay Area, plans to ship 144 pressure exchangers for the project in November or December, said CEO Tom Rooney. The project is an important contract for Energy Recovery, which is counting on the Carlsbad project to kickstart a construction boom of seawater desalination plants in the country. The project faced 14 legal challenges over its environmental impact, such as whether its operation would harm the marine wildlife, and lengthy regulatory processes at local and state agencies before securing the permits and financing to start construction late last year. The completion of the plant will help other similar projects to gain approval, Rooney said. At least 19 desalination plants are in various stages of development in California alone, he added.
“It’s breaking of the dam in terms of what’s likely to be a cavalcade of desalination plants and projects all around the United States,” Rooney said.

Drought and a chance to develop and use local water sources are two main reasons that seawater desalination has attracted ample interest from water agencies. That’s the case for San Diego County Water Authority which signed a 30-year agreement last November to buy water from the Carlsbad plant developer Poseidon Resources, a subsidiary of Poseidon Water. A drought in the early 1990s and a threat from its main water supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to cut the supply prompted the county water authority to draw up a master plan for finding alternative sources of water.

Back in 1991, the county water agency relied on Metropolitan for 95% of its water supply, which comes from rivers in Colorado and Northern California. The goal is to reduce that to 30% by 2020. The county water agency plans to buy between 48,000 and 56,000 acre feet of water per year from the plant, depending on demand. The agency sells water to its 24 members.

“The benefit of desalination — or water recycling and ground water development — is that it’s locally controlled. With imported water supply, the control is not totally yours,” said Bob Yamada, water resources manager with the San Diego water agency.
Poseidon expects to complete the project and start delivering fresh water in 2016. Initially, the San Diego water agency expects the cost of the desalinated water to be roughly twice of what it will pay to Metropolitan. But the agency anticipates that cost to decline to be same or likely lower over time as water from Metropolitan becomes more expensive.

Energy Recovery could benefit from the growth of the desalination business in the country. It already sells its technology to projects in other parts of the world. The company’s expertise in capturing and using fluid pressure also is attracting business in the oil and gas industry, which often moves far speedier than government agencies in approving and funding projects that could save them energy and money.

Energy Recovery’s pressure exchanger comes with a ceramic core, a material that is three times stronger than steel and is so tightly bound that fluid can’t easily pass through. The temperature with which the company bakes the ceramic core, which is made from a powder, is part of the secret formula that makes its equipment so efficient at harvesting energy from the fluid flow. Energy Recovery produces its equipment in a factory at its headquarters.

Ucilia Wang, Contributor Green Tech 7/30/2013 @ 11:30AM

Imperial Valley Sells Water to San Diego County

Judge affirms deal to bring Imperial Valley water to San Diego County

A judge has approved a complex water deal between the farmers of the Imperial Valley and the cities of San Diego County -- hailed as the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly on Wednesday affirmed his tentative ruling from June, which upheld the 2003 deal between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority.

The deal has never stopped being controversial in the Imperial Valley and has been attacked in court by the county Board of Supervisors, environmentalists and some farmers. But Connelly rejected all arguments against the deal, including that it could damage the Salton Sea, which depends on agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley. Although the judge's ruling could be appealed, San Diego County water officials hailed it as a protection for their county's $188-billion-a-year economy.

"This historic pact continues to benefit all the parties involved," said Thomas Wornham, chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority board of directors. San Diego County is blessed with mild weather and a gorgeous landscape but is virtually devoid of groundwater. For half a century county officials have hunted for a way to get an “independent” supply of water and decrease the county’s dependence on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Imperial County enjoys the largest allocation of any agency in the seven states that depend on the Colorado River. Farmers were braving the valley’s boiling summer temperatures a century ago to pull water from the river, long before California coastal cities saw the river as a source of water.  The sale of water has continued during the years of legal wrangling. This year, the sale will involve 180,000 acre-feet of water a year, enough for 360,000 families. by 2021, the sale will reach 280,000 acre-feet.

LA Times By Tony Perry August 1, 2013, 11:52 a.m.

Water Rate Increase 2014


It seems fairly obvious that in order for the San Diego Public Utility Department to continue as a viable self-supporting enterprise (i.e., not funded by local taxes), water rates will have to go up. But what should the price be?  


On July 31st  the San Diego City Council’s Natural Resources & Culture Committee (NR&C) accepted a proposal for a new water rate billing structure, including a rate increase, and sent it to the City Council for a final decision. The committee recommends a new billing method that would use a four-tier rate structure designed to provide a greater financial incentive to conserve water. The current rate structure has three tiers with weaker conservation incentives. The new structure should include more billing tiers and rise more steeply, so that those who elect to use far more water will have to pay the higher marginal cost of providing it.

The new rate structure is an option in the 2013 Water and Wastewater Cost of Service Study delivered at the NR&C meeting. 43 percent of the water ratepayers in San Diego (those who use 10 HCF or less per month) could see lower rates under the new plan, according to Public Utilities Department (PUD) staff that presented Study. Those who consume water at the high end of the scale (19+ HCF) would pay dramatically higher rates (HCF = Hundred Cubic Feet = 748 gallons). 

Water rates should be restructured to incentivize conservation, while still assuring a basic water supply at affordable rates for everyone. The most reliable and least expensive gallon of water is the one we don’t use in the first place. That makes water conservation the top priority. The state has mandated a 20 percent reduction in water use by the year 2020, but much more is needed. Two-thirds of domestic water use goes to irrigating landscaping, so there is a huge opportunity to conserve by using native, drought-resistant plantings and improving the efficiency of irrigation systems.  Newer homes and businesses have efficient indoor water systems, but thousands of older ones need to be retrofitted with more efficient fixtures.

For the past two years PUD has been operating under a requirement to “absorb” rate increases for imported water that it buys from the San Diego County Water Authority, rather than pass the cost on to ratepayers. San Diego imports some 80% of the water it uses.

The decision to do that was made by then-Mayor Jerry Sanders in mid-2011. The news was well-received by the public, likely because of the recession, high unemployment rates, and of course, because nobody likes rate increases. To “absorb” SDCWA’s 2012 rate increase PUD cut back on contracts, supplies, materials, personnel, and drew down reservoir “surplus” so that less imported water would need to be bought, at a fiscal impact of $17.5 million.

This year, the fiscal impact on PUD from SDCWA’s 2013 price increase is estimated to be $20.6 million due to further cuts in contracts, supplies, materials, personnel, and drawdown of reserve funds. The Study (or Rate Case) will be placed on the September 10 City Council agenda. If councilmembers approve the rate proposal, they will schedule a public hearing in accordance with Proposition 218.

That would have to happen fairly soon, since the plan aims for the first rate increases to take effect on January 1, 2014 and the second increase on January 1, 2015.

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which delivers most water to Southern California, is steadily increasing its prices, and new sources like the desalination plant being built in Carlsbad are substantially costlier. A court recently validated a deal under which San Diego County is purchasing surplus water from the Imperial Valley, but that, too, is costly and relies on the MWD to transfer the water.

San Diego County Water Authority created a program to offer an incentive in replacing existing turf with WaterSmart Landscaping

Through an ongoing public education campaign, including demonstration projects, stricter drought alerts and greater awareness of the environmental impacts of water use decisions, residents and businesses can cut water consumption by at least a third in the next 20 years without any significant impact on quality of life.

Sewer Refund Settlement

City Sewer Department Settlement Brings Long Overdue Refunds to Residents

In March, 2004, UCAN's (The Utility Consumers' Action Network) executive director learned that the City of San Diego had been systematically overcharging residential customers (and undercharging large commercial customers) for sewer bills. When confronted, the city admitted that it had applied the wrong rates, in violation of state law. In June, 2004, the City Council revised sewer rates -- boosting those of commercial users and lowering those of residents to eliminate the overcharges to residents. But the city did not offer to reimburse residential ratepayers for years of overpayment.

After more than two years of litigation, the City agreed to a settlement that would return about $40 million to overcharged residential customers and would allow for the creation of independent oversight of City water and sewer operations. The latter may be the most valuable part of this settlement, as it gives City utility customers the ability to effectively question future rate increases.


In the coming months, a notice will be sent in your sewer bill, which informs you that you will be entitled to share in a FORTY MILLION DOLLAR ($40,000,000.00) settlement fund if you choose to be a member of a Settlement Class provisionally certified by the Superior Court of California, for the County of San Diego.

If you are CURRENT single family residential sewer customer and you reside at an address that had a water meter in existence as of September 30, 2004, your monthly sewer bill will be credited automatically for the next four years. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO ANYTHING ELSE TO PARTICIPATE.If you are NOT a CURRENT single family residential sewer customer, you still be may be entitled to a cash payment. However, you MUST submit a Proof of Claim Form within a period of time that will be discussed in the notice.
The San Diego Superior Court will schedule a Fairness Hearing to be held before the Hon. Ronald M. Prager in Department 71 of the San Diego Superior Court, 330 West Broadway, San Diego, CA 92101 to (1) consider and determine the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the Settlement described above; (2) consider whether to certify the Settlement Class and (3) consider Class Counsels’ application for attorneys fees for 12.5% of the settlement fund , and reimbursement of reasonable expenses and costs.

UCAN will conduct an application process for qualified non-profits to use the access to utility bills to solicit money for the independent oversight of the City Water and Sewer departments. Details of that application process will be forthcoming. Groups interested in taking advantage of the process will need to meet minimum requirements, that include:

  • $250K initial budget for staffing and inserts
  • 501(c)(3) status
  • Experience with rate case or financial review of utility operations
  • An identified staff person who will oversee consultants/experts hired with the solicitation monies
  • An adequate accounting system to confirm intake and expenditures of money raised by the solicitation
  • Some public track record so as to have sufficient credibility
  • No conflicts of interest with the City e.g. truly independent status
  • The UCAN Water Project began formally on May 1, 2010 after UCAN had raised enough money from inserts placed into City Water bills.


10 News San Diego, Mon, 20 Nov 2006 8:11 PM PST
Tentative Settlement Reached In City Wastewater Suit A tentative settlement deal is reached in a lawsuit alleging the city of San Diego unfairly charged homeowners sewer rates that should have been paid by industrial users.