Cities across California, like Oceanside and San Diego, are transitioning to automated water metering systems in a bid to promote water conservation. However, some residents of Oceanside have voiced concerns that smart meters represent an intrusion on their privacy.
The Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) project is aimed at collecting data such as the hourly water flow in residential areas, and sending that data to the water department. Customers can view their usage data online via a computer or smartphone app. The goal of the metering system is to promote mindfulness of water usage.
In response to complaints about the smart meters, some City Council members want residents to pay a $20 monthly fee to opt out.
Oceanside City Approved the System in 2020
Oceanside, California received funds from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2020 for the city’s ambitious $4.5 million project to replace thousands of water meters with smart ones.
The new devices, which are designed to help conserve water and monitor usage, will alert residents about leakages and other water issues. They could potentially help the community lower water bills and prevent property damage. The water monitoring system is expected to save 784-acre-feet of water (over 255 million gallons) as well as reduce Oceanside’s dependence on imported drinking water.
The grant to the city is part of the WaterSMART program launched by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The installation of AMI smart meters across Oceanside started in 2021. The goal is to replace about 45,000 traditional water meters. The project is set to be completed in 2023.
Are the Meters Surveillance Devices?
AMI smart meters are automatic devices that monitor water use and transmit the data to the water department. The concerns among some Oceanside residents appear to be centered on the fact that the devices could potentially be used to collect information about things other than water use.
“The AMI smart meter is really a surveillance device masquerading as a metering device,” Oceanside city resident Richard Newton said at a City Council meeting, according to the San Diego Union-Tribute. Newton argued that if a manual meter reading at the end of the month can show a household’s water consumption, smart meters aren’t needed.
Principal Water Engineer Lindsay Leahy has stressed that the purpose of the project is not surveillance, but to help people monitor and conserve their water usage.
$20 Monthly Fee to Opt Out
Oceanside authorities are considering enforcing a $20 monthly fee on customers who refuse to have the new automatic meters installed on their property. Several residents have described the fee as infuriating, arguing that it will be particularly high for the “economically challenged” members of society, The San Diego Union-Tribune noted.
However, city officials believe customers should pitch in for, at least, a part of the cost of having an employee manually read a meter once a month.
“Depending on the ultimate number of meters that are requested to be read manually, the cost associated with obtaining the read could be high as staff would need to make an individual trip to read a meter completely manually,” minutes from a City Council meeting said.
Oceanside Councilmembers are divided on the subject, with Mayor Esther Sanchez opposed and Councilmember Peter Weiss absent from talks.
The dilemma surrounding the cost of opting out is currently being discussed by the City Council, with a potential final decision expected in about six months.
According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, it appears that the meters will be installed regardless, the only difference being that those who are allowed to opt out will not have a “data transmitter” installed. Cities across the state of California are adopting the new smart water meters, with only a few cities giving residents the option to opt out, Leahy noted.
If you are concerned about the effects of digital transformations on your privacy, our full guide to privacy risks in smart cities could make for an interesting read.