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Conservation: 2.0?

news2 waterA water metering network could aid the dire water situation locally-but may also spark new fears about radiation

California’s drought will force communities all over the state to do what they can to survive the summer—and think about how they’ll get through future seasons, too. One idea making ripples in Santa Cruz is a possible water metering network that would let people read their water usage more easily on their computer, maybe even their smartphone.

“It’s a way of conserving water,” says Peter Scott, sporting mesh Trek biking gloves and a navy beanie to match his blue sweatshirt.
The 82-year-old longtime activist, husband to former Mayor Celia Scott, has been talking to city leaders about a few possible conservation methods, including an online water metering system—sometimes called “advanced metering infrastructure”—similar to the one that’s currently being installed in San Francisco. The meters track people’s water usage in real time, and can be accessed online, rather than forcing customers to wait until the end of the month to see how they’re doing, or try to decode their water meter.

Santa Cruz’s water department is taking the idea seriously. Director Rosemary Menard called online meters a “high priority” during May’s budget hearings. “I’m probably getting three or four emails a day from people who think we could be doing that today. Actually, I wish that we could, because in these circumstances, it would be really wonderful for people to have access to that information,” Menard said.

Indeed, even if the drought has drawn attention to the demand for such a program, the fancier water metering won’t help residents get through this summer season, because it needs further study. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess when or if the proposal might appear before the city council, or even the water commission. “I really can’t get into specifics, because we’re not there,” says Toby Goddard, administrative services manager for the department.

Still, speculation begets more speculation: would the new water meters face opposition from activists who say they’re allergic to radiation from such meters—just as PG&E’s SmartMeters galvanized opponents two years ago?

They might, if Josh Hart has anything to say about it.

Hart, director of the national Stop Smart Meters organization, says his group would oppose the switch to online meters in Santa Cruz. Hart, who moved away from Santa Cruz to a small town near Truckee two years ago, cites a 2011 World Health Organization report that electromagnetic radiation waves—like the ones emitted by smart meters, cell phones and wireless Internet—may be harmful.
“Of course it’s appealing to be able to know more about your usage, but I would urge Santa Cruz to not install any metering system that uses wireless technology to transmit information,” says Hart, who has been living without electricity in his home for five months, ever since his local utility company shut off his power. (Hart and his girlfriend had refused to pay an “opt-out” fee, after deciding to keep their old meter instead of switching to an online one.)

The online water meters may or may not renew a testy debate over whether or not such radio frequencies are harmful.
Previously unaware that online water meters emit such radio waves, even Scott says he isn’t positive he and his wife would want one.
Before getting serious about any possible switch, Goddard and the water department staff want to learn more about how much online water metering would reduce usage, and Goddard says the biggest barrier to switching would be cost.

That’s no small consideration. The department has, in the past year, seen both increased costs—as it works to incentivize conservation and make improvements to aging infrastructure, like the aging Bay Street reservoirs—and declining revenues, as lower demand during the drought ushers in less money.

For the time being, Santa Cruz water customers can keep a closer watch on their bills even without online monitoring, since the department switched to monthly billing recently, and things are off to a good start. The department came within 1 percent of its monthly goal for conservation in June.

Still, Scott wants to encourage people to keep an eye on their water meters, no matter what.

“Except it’s a pain in the butt to go down to the sidewalk, and your best friend goes by, and wonders what the hell you’re doing,” he says. “But I suppose it’s a conversation starter.”

Goddard says more people are taking that knees-on-the-ground approach these days.

“People are reading daily, and really focused on their usage,” Goddard says. “I can see the interest.” PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

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