Delays, cost overruns and mismanagement have defined the City of San Diego’s nearly decade-long quest to convert to wireless digital water meters.
On Wednesday, directors for San Diego’s Public Utilities Department appeared before the city’s Audit Committee to provide an update on the $76 million conversion from manual direct-read water meters to wireless. The July 2019 audit blamed the water department for cost overruns, delays, and staffing shortages during the conversion to smart water meters.
The conversion, originally budgeted at $60 million, has ballooned since 2012 when the city council first allocated $5.1 million to the project. The city to date has spent more than $20 million, a third of the initial budget. However only 10 percent of all households currently have working smart water meters citywide.
NBC 7 Responds has reported on the conversion and billing complaints for nearly two years. During that time our investigation found that cost overruns were not the department’s only issue.
The investigation revealed water department managers failed to disclose manufacturing defects in some smart water meters that caused errors. We found thousands of water customers who received inaccurate bills, forcing the city to eventually issue more than $1 million in customer refunds in 2018 alone.
A previous city audit also discovered instances where water department supervisors allowed staff to override quality controls when reading customer meters leading to additional billing problems.
All of the issues eventually led to numerous internal investigations, ending with a reorganization of the city’s troubled department.
But on Wednesday, the new chief of the city’s water department looked to put a new face on the culture inside the department as well as a fresh spin on the problematic conversion to smart water meters.
“We are making sure that our expectations for everybody are clearly dictated,” Shauna Lorance, the new director of the Public Utilities Department, told NBC 7 Responds after the audit hearing.
Lorance added that the department has improved since NBC 7 Responds' investigation began but they “can always do more.”
As for the now $76 million plan to convert to wireless water meters, Lorance said they city will hire a third-party contractor to complete the project, which is expected to take another three to four years.
Previously, water department staff had installed the smart meters but the city auditor’s review recommended finding an outside contractor to complete the job.
Once the city finds a third-party contractor to do the job, they estimate it will take another three to four years to convert all San Diego water meters to the new system.
“It’s going to take a long time to regain confidence,” said Councilmember Scott Sherman, who heads the Audit Committee. “But now I think we are moving in the right direction.”
NBC 7 Responds documented its investigation in an Emmy-award winning 30-minute special titled Flood of Distrust: The Story of San Diego’s Water Department. To watch the special, click here.