Metering Trees

Crews are busy all around Sacramento County, digging and plumbing, installing water meters. Like many transplants from elsewhere in California, where every decade or so brings water shortages and threats of rationing, I was appalled that California’s state capital had a law prohibiting the use of water meters on noncommercial property. What’s up with that? Another perquisite the fatcat Sacramento politicians had voted themselves?

Well, history is more complicated than that. It has more to do with the state’s powerful agricultural interests than with state representatives saving a few dollars on their capital-area homes. (In fact, I don’t believe the majority of legislators here even have homes in the area.) In any case, the meter ban is history and the region has only a few years to meet a mandate to install meters on all property. And I find myself, once the affronted outsider, worrying that we might have made a serious mistake.

What might be wrong with metering water? After all, how can you foster individual responsibility in a system where there is only collective monitoring? Perhaps you can’t, though I have yet to see convincing evidence that the Sacramento region’s per capita water use is significantly different from parts of the state where metering is de rigueur. The debate (such as it was) leading up to the decision to require metering didn’t present much of a counter-argument. It will cost our cash-strapped county some money. There will be a lot of minor disruption as neighborhoods get targeted for metering. But it will bring accountability to residential water users: probably a good thing. Remember, though, that residental use represents such a tiny fraction of water consumption in the state that there is no benefit in targeting residential users for conservation efforts until after commercial and agricultural water users have made massive changes in their water use habits. The potential benefits are minimal, but the costs seemed similarly small. Unfortunately, the debate completely missed a possible tragic consequence of metering.

My grandfather made a respectable living in the 1960s buying, repairing, and renting out a few houses in a sleepy Southern California seaside village called San Clemente. He was a rabid believer in personal responsibility, yet he he paid all his tenants’ water bills. This was so obviously antithetical to what I knew of him, even though I couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve years old at the time, that I asked him about it. He explained that trees were one of the most valuable assets his properties had. Large, healthy shade trees cannot be bought with currency, only with time. They increased the value of his properties in very tangible ways. How could he expect his tenants — possibly faced with a choice between preserving their landlord’s trees and feeding their children — to spend money watering their yards? He chose to subsidize his tenants even though they might be profligate with their water use, possibly even abusive. In exchange, they might help him preserve an asset that was valuable to the tenants, the landlord, and the community. The houses he owned were small and old, but lovingly maintained and adorned with beautiful trees. His foresight paid off.

The joke around Sacramento is that it is “only an hour or two away from places you might like to be.” San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, ski resorts, redwood forests, the Gold Country, and Mount Shasta are all an easy drive from here. Sacramento itself is often the butt of these jokes, but it really does have charms all its own. (I won’t list them here as, frankly, it’s already too crowded.) What makes our hot, flat landscape palatable and even charming is the density and diversity of our urban forest. It is commonly said that Sacramento has more trees per capita than any city except Paris. Whether that’s true or not (I’ve heard the same claim made for Pasadena, California), one cannot dispute the value of our trees. What might be a pleasant stroll on a summer day in Midtown or Arden Park can be torture in a new subdivision without mature trees. As I write this I am looking at a glade so thick with oak, poplar, fir, acacia, and tamarisk that I feel as though I am at the verge of a dense forest, not sitting in the middle of a vast, hot, flat grassland valley.

What will happen when water meters effectively end community support for growing trees in the region? A few years of neglect could easily destroy an arboreal legacy that was centuries in the making and could take fifty years or more to repair. I am no longer so certain that water meters make sense for Sacramento.

RonRisley – 12 Sep 2005