The Long Beach Utilities Department headquarters at 1800 E. Wardlow Road. Photo by Jason Ruiz

The Long Beach Water Department is looking at two new programs that could make it easier to turn service back on and to fix leaking pipes for low-income households facing financial difficulty.

An enhanced smart meter project could put new meters on homes that have high rates of service shut-offs that could allow the department to remotely turn water service back on. Dean Wang, the department’s manager of water resources, said that it could save residents and the department time and money.

The meters would be installed at homes that have high rates of turnover, like student housing, where utilities are consistently turned on and off when tenants move out. They could also be installed at homes where bills are commonly in delinquency, something Wang said can lead to days without service as the customer and department work to schedule a day to turn service back on and requires a reconnection fee of $105.

“Who are the people who are running into this situation and unable to pay these bills?” Wang said. “They’re probably the ones who are least likely to be able to pay that fee.”

Wang said that less than 1% of accounts make up about one-third of shutoffs due to non-payment and about half a percent account for 12.3% of shutoffs due to residential turnover.

The potential new programs are being considered as the end of a city moratorium on residential utility disconnections looms ahead—the moratorium could end in March. The city reported earlier this year that it had over 12,000 business and residential accounts behind on gas, water or trash bills worth about $7.3 million.

Wang said if the Water Commission approves the program, the department would work to identify which delinquent accounts could benefit from having the new meters installed, which could start sometime in late 2023.

Being able to turn on water service remotely could eliminate the need for employees to drive out to residents’ homes and for residents to potentially miss days of work to coordinate a time to be home, the department said.

The cost of the meters, about $315 each, would be factored into the department’s capital investment funding. It could include the installation of between 1,000 and 2,000 new meters.

While the total program cost has yet to be finalized, Wang said that it could be about $1 million, but the savings the department could see in gas, wear and tear on department vehicles driving out to restart service and other savings could pay back the investment in about five to seven years.

A second pilot program that would set aside about $100,000 to help fix leaky pipes in low-income households could also be voted on by the commission later this year. The department could partner with the Long Beach chapter of Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit that helps repair homes and revitalize communities, to complete the repairs.

If the commission approves the program, Rebuilding Together would vet applicants and coordinate and inspect repairs while the department would reimburse the cost of the repair. The department would only approve indoor or mainline leaks for repairs. Outdoor irrigation leaks would not qualify.

It’s not clear what income brackets would qualify for the program, but a spokesperson for the Water Department said that it has typically identified certain census blocks that would benefit from similar programs that aim to help low-income households.

Its Direct Install Garden program allowed low-income households near Jackson Park in North Long Beach to have their lawns converted into drought-tolerant landscaping for free. The free repair program would strive to meet a similar goal for the department: water conservation.

“They’re avoiding high water bills or shutoffs. We’re able to avoid water loss and help with our conservation efforts,” Jillian Croci, an analyst with the department, told the commission Thursday.

The commission is expected to vote on both projects in the coming months.

Water supply update

Adel Hagekhalil, the Metropolitan Water District’s new general manager, attended Thursday’s meeting and had a message for Long Beach’s water officials: Everyone in the region needs to pitch in to do more to conserve water.

Hagekhalil said the district, which imports water from sources like the Colorado River and Northern California through the State Water Project to customers including the city’s Water Department, is looking at an imported water gap of about 400,000 acre-feet that it must close.

The shortage is due to a persistent drought that has led to the first-ever state of emergency being declared along the Colorado River because of historically low water levels. Water officials are confident they have enough water stored away to close that gap this year, but Hagekhalil said there should still be a focus on conservation, investing in other sources of water like recycled and potentially desalination, and credits to encourage water savings.

“It’s going to be expensive, but we have to make sure that affordability is at the center of what we do, as we did with resiliency,” Hagekhalil said, adding that people who use more water should have to pay for the investments that must be made.

For cities like Long Beach, which gets about 60% of its water from the ground, imported water doesn’t have as much of an effect as it does on other cities in Los Angeles County that are completely reliant on imports. But Hagekhalil said everyone needs to chip in.

Long Beach could benefit from a new recycled water plant that’s being built in Carson that will process wastewater to be safe to be injected into ground aquifers. Wang said some of that water could also be diverted to the Port of Long Beach, which currently uses potable water, something that isn’t necessary for its industrial uses.

The facility could be one of the largest in the world and provide enough drinking water for 1.5 million people annually by diverting drinking water away from industrial uses.

The state is also looking to realign how it delivers water from Northern California to Southern California through a new project known as the Delta Conveyance. The project is still circulating its draft environmental report, which is available for public comment until December, but it could increase the state’s ability to capture storm runoff and capture it in storage facilities.

Environmental review of that project could run through next year.

Long Beach looks to shore up vital groundwater supply as state sinks deeper into drought

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.