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State orders Everett to install water meters

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EVERETT -- Thousands of people who own homes built in Everett before the 1990s should expect big changes to their water bills in the next few years.
The city is being forced by the state to install meters on homes that are now billed a flat rate for water. The effort should save some water, but it will cost the city's utility department -- and the ratepayers who fund it -- at least $9.5 million.
In Everett, two-thirds of homes are billed at a flat rate -- that's 12,500 out of 19,500 houses total. The change will likely mean higher bills for water customers who like to run their sprinklers all summer long.
"We think water is a precious resource and users need to be mindful of its use," public works director Dave Davis said. "A water meter provides that extra incentive for people to conserve."
Davis, who already installed a meter at his own Everett home, said the switch was a change for his family, but not a significant one. He decided to put an end to letting his kids run through the sprinkler. He's generally more conscious of water use in the summer.
Everett is one of only two large cities in the state that bill some of its customers at a flat rate. Bellingham is the other. Both cities contain many older homes.
The Legislature passed the Municipal Water Law in 2003, which eliminated some of the risk of municipalities such as Everett losing their water rights.
In exchange, the law requires communities use water more efficiently. That includes mandating the use of water meters in all homes by 2017.
Water is a precious, limited resource, and in the Pacific Northwest, drinking water competes with other uses such as agriculture, industry, recreation and stream flow for fish, according to the state Department of Health's Office of Drinking Water, in an explanation on its web page about the water efficiency mandate.
For years, Everett has had two systems for billing its water customers. Most older homes are billed a flat rate: $154.80 every two months for a single-family home using both city sewer and flat-rate water, or $87 every two months for water alone.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the city began requiring new homes to have meters. The city has tried to hand out the meters to its customers for free in the past and didn't have many takers.
The city has five years to get all the meters installed. That's a tall task.
City crews will do the work, which should save about $3 million more than if the city contracted the work out.
Davis said his crews also will do better job with customer service. They hope to install 25 to 50 meters a week starting this June. They plan to start on the north end of town and move south. That means people on the south end of town may not get a meter until 2016.
The utility department will pick up the cost of each $750 meter as well as any other costs associated with installation. If a sidewalk needs to be drilled into or a shrub moved, the department will handle that, too.
"We will make every effort to restore yards and landscaping in kind," he said. "We're trying to minimize the impact."
Once the meters are installed, customers will have a grace period of a year during which they will continue to be billed on a flat rate. Their bills also will give the metered cost of water, so they can see exactly how much their usage is costing as well as address any factors -- forever-cycling toilets, for instance -- that might be driving that cost.
Just how much water this move will save isn't clear, Davis said.
Everett is one of the most water-rich communities in the state. Early city leaders set up an extensive infrastructure from the Spada Lake Reservoir in the east part of the county to serve the many mills on the city's waterfront during its early years. The Spada Lake Reservoir can hold 50 billion gallons of water. That's more than Seattle's reservoirs combined.
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or

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