Santa Rosa’s water wars ended in 1907, when post-earthquake upgrades allowed it to provide a reliable (albeit foul-tasting) water supply. But water woes continued because the town screwed up installation of the new water meters.
Santa Rosa introduced water meters in 1905 after years of fumbled efforts to enforce conservation. Policemen, firemen and city inspectors were turned into water cops, empowered to write hefty $2.50 citations for leaky faucets. Lawns could be watered only at certain times of the day announced by a steam whistle, and there were additional monthly fees for every water fixture (having an indoor toilet cost 25¢ and was worth every penny). Once meters were installed, each home was supposed to be billed only for water use over 10,000 gallons/month. In theory.
As it turns out, the city inspectors should have been keeping a close watch on the guys installing the expensive new meters. In one case mentioned below, two homes shared the same meter – an arrangement the owners asked the city council for permission to continue, as it would be expensive and bothersome to install separate water lines for each house (the request was denied).
In a far more outrageous SNAFU, it was revealed that five businesses – including a bakery and one of Santa Rosa’s largest saloons – were connected through a water meter for a private residence. The homeowner understandably refused to pay the excess-use water bill, so the city shut off the meter, and thus the water supply to the home and businesses alike. Two of the businesses agreed to pay the flat business rate, but the other two balked, leaving the water turned off. “Without the necessary water, sinks and toilets go without flushing and the neighbors are wondering ‘how about the sanitary condition’ of the block,” commented the letter’s author.
Like Banquo’s ghost, Santa Rosa’s free water spook will not down, but comes up to flap its dry cerements around the town. The domestic 10,000 gallons frequently fail to flow, or will flow in a flood, the meters fail to meet the matter and the claims for the excess liquid fall of liquidation. A property owner who is paying his water bond tax had his water shut off and is carrying the question into a court of law. Two citizens appeared before the city council Tuesday night asking that the single meter which marks the gallons of water running into their two separate residences, and into no other, be permitted to do double duty for the present. The petitioners gave as a reason for the request that the change, the laying of extra pipes, the digging of trenches through lawns would cost them fully $30. The extra meter room cost the city about $8. Mr. Ross, one of the petitioners, thought that even if the city would not consider the matter of saving a property owner $30 [in] these rather hard times, by the simple exercise of a little discretion, it might in view of the fact that the public warrants are held up every month by reason of municipal poverty, hold on to that $8.
Notwithstanding the fact of that three practical councilmen were ready to grant the request, it was turned down because the water ordinance called for a meter at each and every residence, and the council proceeded to order $400 worth of meters. Mr. Ross will have a nice new meter in front of his home, which will be $8 off his $30 bill.
On the north side of Fourth Street are five business places–Ketterlin Bros. hardware store, Young Bros. store, Greek-American Candy Kitchen, Santa Rosa Bakery and the Germania saloon, which are all hooked on to the meter in front of the residence on Fifth street occupied by Mrs. Gore. There are no other meters in the bunch of six places. The July excess bill amounting to $14 was sent to Mrs. Gore and the August bill amounting to about $4 went to the same person. She declined to pay the bills on the ground of that she is away from her home all day employed in a restaurant, and her two roomers occupy the building only at night, also that five other places were included. Yesterday the water was turned off at the meter on Fifth street and the six places went dry. Young Brothers and the Germania proprietor finally paid their flat rate bills for the two months, but they are still without water because the other four parties have not settled. The inmates are without the necessary water, sinks and toilets go without flushing and the neighbors are wondering “how about the sanitary condition” of the block. One of the waterless storekeepers says he will stand pat even if the Board of Health takes a hand. So the ghost will not down, the meters will not meet and the free water will not be free.
SANTA ROSAN.– Letter to the Santa Rosa Republican, October 7, 1908