Water face-off in Fresno

  The federal government has given the city of Fresno an ultimatum: Either change the way you write your water bills, or risk losing a third of your water supply.

A 1992 law forbids the federal government from renewing water contracts with central California cities, unless the cities bill residents based on how much water they use, rather than charging a flat monthly fee. But Fresno voters have responded by rejecting two ballot initiatives that would have allowed officials to install and read residential water meters. It would “raise taxes and raise bureaucracy in the city,” according to Chris Mathys, spokesman for the San Joaquin Taxpayers Association, which opposes meters.

Fresno’s constitution prohibits water meters without voter approval, so in a final attempt to get an exception from the 1992 law, Mayor Alan Autry met in January with John Keys III, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Keys made it clear that Fresno must comply by 2006, when the city’s federal water contract expires, or lose 60,000 acre-feet of water.

Patrick Wiemiller, assistant director of public utilities in Fresno, says water meters encourage people to conserve, because if you use less water, you pay less each month. If a third meter initiative, slated for 2004, fails, City Council-man Jerry Duncan says Fresno will have two options left: “One, our city shrivels up and dies; or two, we buy water on the open market and pay five to six times more for it.”
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