Why are Santa Barbara Water Bills High?

Santa Barbara water has some of the country’s most expensive. After connection fees, the city’s average water bill is around $120/month. Gary Fuller, the owner of Acme Detection, has seen monthly water bills hit over $200,000 in this time frame and he wants to help people avoid that.

Average monthly water cost by city

Gary, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident, formed Acme Detection in Montecito in 2008 with the goal of helping people actively manage their water use. “Water is one of our community’s most valuable commodities, but it’s something we’ve been unable to give people much control over. For your average person, water just comes into your house and that’s about all you really know.”

After a bit of probing, it becomes clear he’s right.  Despite Santa Barbara’s progressive nature, our community’s infrastructure has in many ways lagged behind much of the world. Walking with Gary through his Montecito neighborhood, he points out countless places where water use is at best loosely monitored. There’s the water pipes which feed the residences. They run down the sides of the street approximately 3 ft underground and were largely installed over 50 years ago. Gary describes how if there’s a leak on any of these main lines, the city usually has to wait until water starts pooling up on the street to even know that it needs to be fixed.

Gary Fuller, ACME Detection, Montecito, Santa Barbara
Gary Fuller, ACME Detection, Montecito, Santa Barbara

“This is something we should really be tracking.” Gary says. “I think we’re moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot of progress to be made.” He opens a water meter box and begins to talk about Montecito’s meter replacement plan. Gary explains how the Montecito Water District has scheduled the replacement of all city meters with new electric ones starting this year. “It’ll be great to see Montecito take a bigger step toward electronically tracking water use. One of the surest ways to help people change their water use is to allow them to easily measure it.”

In the meantime, Gary is trying to help people measure it themselves. He spends his days working as a general contractor, trying to provide same day leak detection services and long term water monitoring strategies to his customers. Using acoustic listening devices and thermal imaging cameras, he scans his customer’s water systems for any abnormalities in water use and works to help them develop a long term monitoring strategy.

There are various monitoring technologies Gary has recently been installing for his customers to help them track their water use electronically. His favorite is the Flume Meter Reader which simply straps around a water meter and syncs with an iphone app to allow customers to monitor their water use from anywhere. “I just want people to feel like they have some sort of control over their consumption.” Gary says before heading back to work.  

It’s official. After experiencing seven of the driest years on record, California is no longer in a drought. However, many of its lingering effects remain, particularly regarding water prices. Montecito residents have paid dearly for their water over the past decade. From penalty rates to emergency surcharges, the drought has forced the Montecito Water board to pass several different fees on to their customers. This has raised the cost of water across our community and created a new sense of urgency in the community’s conservation efforts.

Montecito Water District, Water Utility Bill
James Fuller

James Fuller

Staff Research Associate at Institute for Energy Efficiency at UCSB

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