John Robson embarked on a monthly ritual 200 yards from his home near Sturgeon on Friday.

Robson, 77, knelt on a green pad he brought to protect his knees from the mud as the pitter-patter of water being pumped from a small enclave protecting his water meter echoed throughout the forest on his land.

"I'm not yet down to the meter," Robson said after eight pushes on the hand-pump.

Over the past month Robson has been in a feud with Public Water District No. 10, a water district which serves residents in northern Boone County, southeastern Randolph County and western Audrain County. The water district is one of the few water districts in Boone County that still makes its customers report their own water usage. Sherry Creel, Water District No. 10 manager, said the story is more complicated than Robson believes and that the district needs to make other infrastructure improvements before it can invest in pricey automated reporting systems.

Robson's farm sits on an idyllic piece of land outside Sturgeon. An upstate New York native, the rolling hills remind Robson of his youth and a land far away from the metropolis of St. Louis where had a long career working for Anheuser-Busch.

Still, the same countryside makes it hard to roll out automated systems to serve 1,900 largely rural customers in Water District No. 10. Centralia-based Water District No. 10 has 327 miles of water lines in a 274-square-mile service region, Creel said. Other water districts in rural parts of Boone County also serve outlying areas of Columbia, where people live closer together, Creel said.

"We look into this all the time," Creel said. "We had some (automated systems) that lasted a year. The thing is trying to find something that will work."

To read his meter, Robson must drive in a cart from his house down a small hill to the edge of his property and open what looks like a small manhole. After getting down on his knees and pumping out any water that seeped into the space, Robson reads six digits, which stand for how much water he used in a month. Then he must call the number into the district or write it on a bill and send his payment in.

His feud with Water District No. 10 began in mid-January when he had to go out in the middle of Mid-Missouri's largest snowstorm in five years, bail water using a coffee can from his meter cover and eventually buy a $54 hand pump to flush water out of the meter's enclave.

Customers have from the first to the fifteenth of each month to report water usage without penalty, Creel said. Late customers can turn in their bill for the preceding two-month period beginning on the first of each month as well, Creel said. In all, customers have about 45 days to call or mail in their readings before the district shuts their water off, Creel said.

"I feel like we're being as fair as we can be," Creel said. "Because we're a government entity we can't cater to one or two people."

A letter from the water district provided by Robson dated Jan. 3 shows that by mid-January he was more than two months late paying his water bill, and was going to have his water shut off on Jan. 17.

"They won't cut you any slack," Robson said. "Like a couple of days until it dries up."

Remote-read water meter systems have existed for decades. The most common are older systems that require employees of water districts to canvas neighborhoods and take readings from water meters with hand-held computers.

Columbia Electric Services Supervisor Morgan Long said the city employs six full-time employees who only run routes collecting water meter data by hand. Two additional employees service meter-readers and read meter data.

Water District No. 10 employs just five people full time, Creel said.

Newer systems use RFID radio signals to send data to trucks that canvas neighborhoods. Public Water Supply District No. 9 services 6,000 connections in eastern Boone County and uses hand-held meters and RFID technology.

Roger Ballew, Water District No. 9 manager, said RFID systems can read data from up to a half-mile away. Rural homes like Robson's can still be far out of the way for trucks gathering the data.

Visitors to Robson's farm must turn off of Highway 63, go down another road for about a half-mile, then wind through gravel roads for about another half-mile before reaching his home.

RFID systems also come at a significant cost to the utility.

Ballew and Kenny Wise, manager of Public Water Supply District No. 4 near Hallsville, said just to outfit trucks with the laptops, software and servers needed to collect data from RFID meters can cost between $40,000 and $50,000.

"Then they go up from there," Wise said. "That's for one of the least expensive ones we have, but it's a real good one."

New water meters and transponders, which transmit RFID signals, can cost between $125 and $350 per meter, Wise and Ballew said.

Water District No. 9 converted its meters to remote-read meters in the mid-1980s, Ballew said. Over the decades as it invested in technology, the district did not pass costs on to customers immediately but eventually raised rates 2-3 percent per year, Ballew said.

Water District No. 4 began investing in technology in the 1960s, and tries to keep up to date with the latest technology. About every four years the district raises rates and technology is a big part of the reason, Wise said.

"We're constantly trying to replace those, so it's a big expense," Wise said.

Only about 20 Water District No. 10 customers want remote-read systems, Creel said. With such a small amount of vocal proponents, the district wants to focus first on other infrastructure needs, like pipes, pipe pressure and water quality. Any investment in technology will lead to unavoidable rate hikes, Creel said.

"There's so much involved there would have to be a rate increase," she said. 

During the first time Robson talked on the phone with a Tribune reporter last Wednesday, he said he would pay for new water meters that would save him the hassle of reading his meter in any condition. By Friday, Robson said he was reluctant to pay for an investment in new technology.

"Do I want to (pay for a new system), not particularly," Robson said. "Because 80-90 percent of the time you can read your meter when it's not all wet and snowy."

Like many senior citizens, Robson moves gingerly. Bending is hard for him and he said he's been treated for seven types of cancers, including Hodgkin's lymphoma, esophageal cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma. Despite these problems, and an irregular heartbeat, Robson said he feels in good health.

At his age though, he worries about other people in worse shape that have trouble getting to their water meters.

"There are people that are worse than I am."

For now, the sides are dug in. Robson scheduled a meeting later this month with the water district to hash out their differences. The district thinks it may have found a remote-read system from an Illinois company that will serve all of its customers, but Creel said the district will not know for certain until it meets with the company in several weeks.

pjoens@columbiatribune.com

573-815-1722