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Environment Report: Lawsuit Targets Smart Water Meters

Activists are trying to make San Diego Gas & Electric a greener company, the Surfrider Foundation proposes a ban on Styrofoam and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

Image via Shutterstock

Last week, San Diego’s water department got hit with a lawsuit over how it’s paying to install 280,000 new “smart” meters across the city

The lawsuit is based on Proposition 218, one of California’s strict anti-tax laws.

The new meters are eventually supposed to eliminate the need for meter readers by automatically sending water use data to the city, but the program has been delayed, in part by other funding issues.

The suit is a class action filed by San Diego-based attorney Paul Neuharth Jr. and Seattle-based attorney Robert Teel on behalf of Miller Marks, a San Diego resident and sewer customer. It alleges the department is mixing two pots of money that are supposed be separated to find the $67 million needed to install the meters. The first pot comes from the city’s drinking water customers. The second pot comes from the city’s sewer customers.

For the most part, these two groups overlap — if you get water, you have sewage. But the city also treats sewage for more than a dozen neighboring cities and water agencies. Money from those cities also ends up in the second pot.

The lawsuit claims sewer customers from across the region are paying for water meters in the city for no good reason. The lawsuit was first reported by NBC San Diego.

The lawsuit also alludes to the relatively large reserves that the city has had in its sewer fund for years — several hundred million dollars, enough to fund about two years of operations.

The lawsuit has a long way to go, but it’s based in part on worries from members of the city’s Independent Rates Oversight Committee.

The oversight committee’s chairman, Gordon Hess, has also wondered if the city can justify splitting the cost of the meter installations evenly, because city water meters are read six times a year to determine city customers’ water bills but only two of those readings are used to calculate sewer rates. If the meters are used less than half the time to calculate sewer rates, why should sewer customers pay half the cost of new meters?

Before the lawsuit was filed, water department spokesman Jerry McCormick said there was “no formal study” that justifies the way the city is paying for the program, but the department could still defend its decision to split the costs. He said the funding deal was made in consultation with the city attorney’s office and there are benefits to sewer customers from new meters that “may not be immediately apparent,” like coming up with detailed models of how the sewer system is used, which can help operations.

More Direct Democracy

Back when the city was considering a series of water rate increases in 2015, we wrote about Proposition 218 and how city water customers could protest the rate increase. If a majority protested, a rate increase would be stopped in its tracks.

There’s a similar arrangement in San Diego Gas & Electric’s deal to operate within city limits. Environmentalists are hoping to use the negotiations of a new deal to force SDG&E to quickly become a greener company.

But voters have their own power. In the 1970 agreement the power company signed with the city, voters are allowed to revoke or amend the agreement on their own at any election.

In Other News

In an opinion piece, Michael Torti, executive committee chair of the Surfrider Foundation, writes about the city’s money-losing plan to recycle foam plastic, a material also known as Styrofoam. The op-ed picks up on some reporting we did last year about how the city decided to try to recycle this stuff rather than ban it, as other cities have.

More scary stuff from San Onofre, the out-of-business nuclear power plant along the coast. KPBS reports on a design flaw in the containers that will hold nuclear material. These containers are going to be stored next to the beach, unless someone can find another place to put them.

No surprise here: The Sierra Club is again suing the county to make it strengthen its plan to fight climate change. The environmental group has been in court for years arguing a previous version of the county’s climate action plan was too weak. This time around, the Sierra Club is focusing on part of the plan that may allow suburban sprawl projects to offset their carbon footprint by planting trees on the other side of the world.

Cary Lowe, a local land-use attorney, wrote an op-ed in the Union-Tribune arguing San Diego should do more to encourage water conservation. He writes about a progression of things that dry regions should do to ensure they have enough water — conserve, recycle and, finally, desalinate ocean water. In San Diego, the order got messed up. Since the 1990s, the region has been conserving water, but arguably not enough. Then, it decided to build a desalination plant, even before the city could get money to pay for its plan to make sewage drinkable.

Don’t miss this great look at Rachel Carson’s career, which attempts to remind everyone that, though “Silent Spring” is her masterwork, her career was mostly devoted to writing about the sea — even though she couldn’t swim.

From the Actual Environment

I recently got back from a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. We toured the lower basin of the Colorado River, from which San Diego gets most of its water in most years.

We went down into Mexico and up into Nevada. But we also did a bit in California, visiting the big farming valleys in Riverside and Imperial counties, all of which depend on siphoning off part of the river. One of the great sayings about San Diego is you can ride in the sand dunes, play in the snow and swim in the ocean all in a day. Well, keep going just a bit to the east and there’s a whole other scene — the massive farming scene. Here’s a photo of Brussels sprouts growing in the Coachella Valley.

I don’t know if anyone would really want to hike around these areas, but they are sure worth visiting, to see massive fields in the middle of a desert and your food before it’s wrapped in plastic with a price tag on it.

A field of Brussels sprouts in Coachella Valley, Calif. / Photo by Ry Rivard

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