man in safety vest pushes cart of water coolers and jugs. RV in the background
Kyle Mitchell delivers hydrant equipment and water containers to the Alameda Avenue RV encampment. Credit: Amir Aziz

It was an unusually sunny January morning in Fruitvale—the kind that makes you crave a cold glass of water after you spend just a few minutes outside.

Get involved

To access the meter for your community or to volunteer with the program, contact:

Kyle Mitchell at
The East Oakland Collective at (510) 990-0775

Some people living in RVs along Alameda Avenue were stocking up, filling large plastic jugs with water from the fire hydrant near their camp. 

The water didn’t come straight out of the hydrant, though; it traveled through a complex system of equipment attached to it—a meter, a pressure regulator, a filter, and a hose—that ensured the product was safe, clean, and “counted.” 

“Now we’re good to pump,” said volunteer Kyle Mitchell, as he attached the final piece, a garden-style spray nozzle. 

Like many Oaklanders who live outdoors or in vehicles, some of the Alameda Avenue residents spend large amounts of money on plastic water bottles or resort to breaking open hydrants, an endeavor that can result in unclean water and render the hydrant unusable in emergencies. But when you need to drink, bathe yourself, wash your hands, or clean your home, it may be the only option.

“Water is a necessity out here,” said Kim Hollis, who’s lived in an RV on the avenue for five years. “We usually go to the hydrant but it’s only so clean.” For drinking water, Hollis buys bottles, “but if you don’t have a car, it can be heavy.”

The new hydrant after Kyle installs on the hydrant within the community
The blue meter attachment accesses and tracks water from the hydrant. It’s pumped through a pressure regulator, filter, and hose. Credit: Amir Aziz

In late 2020, a small group of unhoused residents, advocates, and community organizations approached the East Bay Municipal Utility District, asking for use of hydrant meters at encampments. These portable meters are used in some places by construction crews or landscapers, who rent them from a utility and attach them to hydrants on site, to access the water. With the meter attachment, the water can be tracked and paid for, and administered in a way that preserves the hydrant and filters the water. 

When Andrew Lee heard about the East Bay group’s proposal, he was “impressed.” Lee is EMBUD’s manager of customer and community services, and he came out to Alameda Avenue on Thursday morning to see the meter attachment in use. 

“As a public agency, we can’t just avoid charging someone for water used,” he said, noting that unauthorized hydrant use can also create health hazards and obstruct firefighters. Some unhoused people report that EBMUD has locked up hydrants at their camps in the past.

Kim Hollis and "Tiny" are members of the houseless community near Home Depot.
Kim Hollis and Tiny the dog live in an RV along Alameda Avenue, where water is a “necessity” but hard to come by. Credit: Amir Aziz

But the group pushing for the hydrant meters “found a creative way to help this community,” Lee said. He brought their idea to the EBMUD board, which passed a policy permitting hydrant meters in July 2021. The utility worked out the details over the following months, and the hydrant equipment began making its way around the East Bay a couple weeks ago.

There is one portable meter that will circulate around homeless camps. A second hydrant meter has been permanently installed at the new city-run tiny-home shelter on E. 12th Street.

Having EBMUD on board is huge, said Candice Elder, the executive director of the East Oakland Collective. Out with the group on Alameda Avenue on Thursday, she said the policy came at a critical time: “We’re in COVID—how can you protect yourself if you don’t have access to water?”

Watch a demonstration of the hydrant meter in use. Credit: Amir Aziz

The East Oakland Collective is the owner of the EBMUD account associated with the portable hydrant meter, and the group will be billed for any water accessed through it. The group has already fundraised around $6,000, which they estimate will cover at least a year’s worth of water access across all the camps that make use of the meter. 

Trained volunteers and community organizations, led by Mitchell, can check out the meter and related equipment from the collective, and bring it to camps around town, leaving them with up to a week’s worth of water at a time. 

“It can go where the people are. Any place there’s a hydrant, we can hook it up,” said Mitchell, a lawyer who’s become passionate about water access at encampments.

While the meter equipment and hydrant accessories may seem elaborate to an outsider, to Mitchell the system is beautifully simple, and portable. He used to lug hundreds of pounds of water around in his car, dropping it off at camps and risking his own back and those of the residents in the process. 

“Water is heavy,” he said. “We really don’t understand that, living in houses.” 

After the installation, Kyle, Candice Elder from East Oakland Collective and Andrew from EBMUD discuss how it works and begin filling canteens to pass out to the community
Kyle Mitchell, Candice Elder, and Andrew Lee (from left) visit the Alameda Avenue community to put the meter attachment into use and deliver water to residents. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sergio and Alejandra Ruiz, a couple living on Alameda Avenue, said they can go through 100 gallons a week, using a lot of it to care for the pets at the camp. They also need it to clean their living space.

“I care about the community and I care about my life,” said Sergio Ruiz, who said housed passers-by make immediate judgements based on the conditions of the camp. “One day I was cleaning this area and somebody drove by and threw a garbage bag in my face,” he said. 

Alejandra Ruiz said the hydrant meter will help, but also encouraged city workers and community members to bring more water to unhoused residents.

Another recent EBMUD policy change—proposed by the same coalition of advocates—will make that easier. Until recently, it was generally illegal for a housed EBMUD customer to take water from their tap and bring it to someone living in another location. Now, a “good samaritan” rule permits that.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.