Every week, Fourth Street East resident Maria Lobanovsky gets down on all fours and reads her water meter, pulls out a weathered piece of scratch paper and logs how much water she has used. She has been doing this since November 2012.
Not far down the street, neighbor Moira Watts has a similar log, and around the corner Sidney Scholl and Jo Anne Largent are also keeping a close watch on their water meters.
Lobanovsky and many of her neighbors are members of a committee of Sonoma citizens concerned about water bills and usage. The group was formed by Lobanovsky and two friends – Scott Pace and Marilyn Kelly. Pace and his wife live part-time in Redding and also maintain their family’s home on Larkin Drive. Kelly is a former superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District and lives part time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in a house on Fine Avenue. The three started comparing water bills and other water-related charges in 2012 and have serious concerns about bills they feel are erroneous and lack clear and specific information to easily understand charges.
The eastside residents are concerned about alarmingly high city water bills and over-the-top water usage readings with little or no explanation from the city as to the cause. Their experience has prompted questions about the transparency of Sonoma’s local government and its accountability for water system billing and record-keeping.
The national average water usage for a household of four people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is 400 gallons a day, or close to 12,000 gallons for one month. The Valley of the Moon Water District, which serves the greater Sonoma Valley and contracts water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, as does the City of Sonoma, estimates the average Valley household of four people uses close to 200,000 gallons of water in a year. Even with its highest-in-the-county per capita daily water use in 2008, Sonomans averaged 262 gallons per person per day. That expands to just over 16,000 gallons in two months – the city’s billing period.
Retiree Lobanovsky moved to her Sonoma residence 14 years ago from San Francisco after having worked in business and finance for several major companies.
She installed both energy and water-saving devices throughout her home and garden, even taking advantage of a Sonoma County Water Agency Water Smart Program to improve her conservation and add drought tolerant landscaping. After working with the county in 2006 to upgrade her irrigation system to a water-saving drip method, Lobanovsky’s bills from 2006 to 2012 were steady, ranging from $60 to $80 – or roughly 8,000 to 14,000 gallons per billing period– varying with the seasons.
New meter, higher water bills
In June 2012, according to Lobanovsky, city workers installed a new water meter at her property. The bill she received in September jumped from her normal range to $236 for the bi-monthly billing period.
Suspecting some sort of error, Lobanovsky went to Sonoma City Hall looking for answers and wondering if the new water meter could have been the cause of such a high bill. She recalled being told that there were “no errors” and offered an installment payment plan, which she accepted and began paying. Lobanovsky said that this bill also left out important details, such as her usage over the last two months, raising even further concern as to how her bill was determined.