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Council picks 'cadillac' water meter program
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When water rates are charged on a metered rate next year, residents will be able to track their water use online and the city will be able to help identify leaky faucets and pipes. That's because the city will be using a "cadillac" reading system that uses instantaneous radio data collection.

Called the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system, the program is more costly than the drive-by meter reading method. In fact, councilmembers labored at justifying the extra $700,000 cost but were relieved to know that one contractor in the audience could assure that he would lower those costs by $420,000.

Each meter will be equipped with a radio transmitting device that will send data to a radio on a tall structure. The data is sent to a computer server at City Hall for downloading into computer systems.

State regulations are forcing cities like Ceres to install and begin reading water meters as a way of curbing water use by an estimated 20 percent - the equivalent of adding three city wells. The savings occurs when people cut back on watering to refrain from receiving high water bills.

The city adopted a series of water rate increases earlier this year to help pay for meters as well as water system improvements. The city issued bonds to cover the costs and estimated meters were going to cost $3.2 million.

Councilman Chris Vierra said he didn't like the idea of paying employees to drive around the city all day with radios to collect meter data through the air. Instead the AMI system transmits meter data to the location at City Hall. Officials will be able to track water use cycles and water demand.

Residents will be able to learn what their bills will be and immediately identify leaky pipes or faucets before they get surprised with a larger-than-expected bill.

The cities of Atwater, Firebaugh, Los Banos and Madera all employ the AMI system. Riverbank and Hilmar are two cities that use the drive-by data collection system.

Councilman Guillermo Ochoa was the lone proponent of the drive-by system. Vice Mayor Ken Lane was absent at Monday's meeting.

The state has devised a two-tiered strategy to meter all California homes where municipal water is used. It divides all houses into two categories: those built before 1992 and those built after. By the end of 2010, the city must install water meters on all homes built after 1992. And by January 2025, the state requires all cities to have meters installed on homes built prior to 1992. The city, however, plans to install meters on all homes by next year for two reasons. Public Works Director Phil Scott said it's the most fair and equitable way to treat residents. The city also welcomes conservation because of the difficulty in meeting water demands that depend solely on groundwater sources.

Ceres has yet to develop metered rates. Rates will be based on existing usage and customers will get a mock bill the month preceeding the month the metering will begin.