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.
Lobanovsky’s next bill, received in November 2012, was even higher at $281.
Concerned at the impact these high bills were having on her fixed income, and worried at the possibility of a leak or an error with the new meter, Lobanovsky contacted her neighbors to see whether they had similar spikes. The highest bills she saw were close to $160. Lobanovsky turned to the city to have staff conduct an inspection of her property. No leaks or issues that might otherwise contribute to the high bills were found.
Lobanovsky appealed both the September and November bills, hoping the city could give her some sort of information about how her usage spiked so much and resulted in such high bills. City staff, she said, made clear it could not guarantee anything, although both of Lobanovsky’s bills were subsequently reduced to $122.51.“(This) brings into question how I could use the exact same amount of water for four months running,” Lobanovsky said, adding she received no explanation or documentation as to how the adjustment was determined.
In September 2013, Pace and Lobanovsky got water bills that reflected the same usage as for the previous year, causing even further worry as to how and where the city was collecting residential water usage information.
$890 water bill and 2,000 gallons a day
The group’s concern mounted when, in August 2013, Moira Watts, a neighbor of Lobanovsky’s, received a water bill for $890.37. The bill indicated that Watts, a widow who lives alone on a one-third acre lot on Fourth Street East with no pool or pond, had used 123,000 gallons of water in a bi-monthly billing period from the end of May to the beginning of August. That breaks down to roughly 2,000 gallons of water a day.
Watts, who has lived at her house since 1973 and acknowledged she is a gardener and does enjoy a nice bath, said if she used that much water she’d be “swimming in it” at her property. Having grown up in the arid climate of East Africa, the retiree said she is particularly appreciative of water and its importance as a resource, leading her to make extra efforts to conserve with water efficiency devices and never throwing water out, but rather finding another use for it.
A bill she’d received in June 2013 for the prior two months was also high, at $463.09. However, Watts did not know how to appeal her bill and paid this amount.
Worried about the effect the nearly $900 bill would have on her fixed income, and concerned that leaks she’d had in her house and irrigation system might have reappeared, Watts contacted the city to inquire how she had possibly used so much water.
Without any explanation as to what happened or how this usage data was determined, Watts said, the city agreed to reduce her bill to $646.21. Watts paid the nearly $650, but said she is still unclear how this figure was determined and how she could have used so much water. She has had her property checked for leaks by the city and by a private contractor, and was told that she did not have any leaks.
A new meter has since been installed at Watts’ residence, she said, noting a water bill she received at the beginning of May 2014 for the previous two months is just $76.33, for 11,000 gallons of water.
Councilmember Ken Brown, who was mayor at the time Lobanovsky, Pace, Kelly and Scholl first brought their water worries to the city in 2012, said he is aware of the issues and is working to get them resolved, noting his main job is to help community members deal with important issues. “I’m as concerned as everyone else – I have my own water bill to deal with,” Brown said. Brown lives on the west side of the city near Fryer Creek and is on a different billing cycle than the concerned east side residents. “We’ve got to get a hold on this (water problem),” he said, “the current billing (process) is not working.”
In 2013, Brown set up a meeting for the group with Supervisor Susan Gorin and City Manager Carol Giovanatto.
Giovanatto acknowledged she is aware of the issues with city water bills and has heard concerns from this group of residents. She said she appreciates when city residents step forward and share problems and suggestions with her as it helps make the city and its process stronger and more valuable to the community.
The city purchases water from the county, Giovanatto explained, so the city can really only make adjustments – and not refunds – for leaks, because whether the water was used or wasted via a leak, the city has already paid for it. “If the consumer and the city don’t share the cost, then it’s the taxpayers that will have to shoulder the burden,” Giovanatto said, explaining leak adjustments are made at the first tier level.
Three tier rate system
Sonoma charges residential customers based on three tiers of water usage, plus an additional service charge bi-monthly. For customers within city limits, the lowest tier, ranging in thousands of gallons from 1 to 12,000, costs $3.59 per thousand gallons. The consecutive two tiers range from 13 to 36,000 at $6.11 per thousand gallons and 37,000 and up for $7.63 per thousand gallons. Commercial business, irrigation-only properties and households outside of city limits that use city water are charged at different tiers. Customers also pay a service charge that varies based on meter size from $30.69 to $245.91.
Since 2003, Sonoma has used a metering system called Automatic Meter Reading (ARM) from ARB Utility Management Systems, a division of Neptune Technology Group, according to City Engineer and Director of Public Works Dan Takasugi. The meter reading process involves a small battery-powered radio transmitter from the meter register that is read while Public Works staff drive by the meter with a mobile device every two months. The readings then go into a citywide database.
Meters help the city gather information about a household’s water usage, leak detection and reverse flow detection. To ensure meter readings are accurate, Takasugi said, “We scan through readings for abnormalities in usage and double check usage against last billing cycle or historical usage.We may send staff out to investigate the site … or proper functioning of a meter.”
Irrigation systems are also connected to meters, while larger irrigation systems run on their own meter.
But the system’s manufacturer has been the focus of some controversy. A 2011 CNN report revealed that complaints about Neptune Technology Group and its meters have been rampant throughout the U.S., with huge water bill spikes in Cleveland, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tampa, Florida; Brockton, Massachusetts; and Atlanta, Georgia. The worst case was in Atlanta, where thousands of city residents reported unusual spikes, some with $3,000 bills. The city refunded more than $460,000 to residents, and Atlanta residents are suing Neptune for inaccuracies in meter readings and data transmissions that resulted in the astronomical water bills. Pace said that he wonders what type of investigation the city has done into the accuracy of its meters.
“Many of the problems arose after the installation of new, automated water meters, which began (around 2006),” the CNN report said, “and involved contracts for meter installations, the electronic meters and software equipment.”
CNN explained how the automated meter-reading technology eliminates the need for city workers to manually check every meter, but rather get data by driving by each property and collecting electronic transmissions.
But Takasugi explained, “Generally, a faulty meter will give us an error message, rather than a high water use reading.” He said the city has been “satisfied” with the meters and attributes the problems in other cities to poor installation of the data register and radio components on each meter.
Overall, Takasugi said, if there is any inaccuracy in the meters, which he explained are getting old, it is to the benefit of the customer. The older meters, he noted, tend to register “slightly less water use.” When old meters are replaced, the new meters do register a small water increase, he said. “We have flow tested many of the larger water meters in the City, and generally they are accurate, and where they have had any inaccuracy, it has been to the financial benefit of the customer.”
The most common types of leaks, according to Takasugi, are in irrigation systems, toilets, through customer forgetfulness and also breaks in the system.
68,000 gallons in two months?
Still, Scholl, who has rented her house on Wilking Way since 2007 and lives alone, said everybody has a different situation, but most of their concerns are the same.
For six years, Scholl said, her bills were steady, averaging $60 or 6,000 gallons per billing period, and she could almost predict what her water bill would be every two months. But, in 2012 Scholl’s bill was “off the charts,” indicating she had used more than 68,000 gallons of water in one two-month billing period.
Scholl, a retired logistics coordinator and manager who worked for the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, immediately went to the city and inquired about leaks on her property.
City staff looked at her water meter and told her she had no leaks.
So Scholl carefully tracked her water consumption for the next year and in 2013, a bill for August indicated she had used nearly 60,000 gallons of water for $470.
Still, unconvinced she had no leaks, despite what the city told her, Scholl conducted her own investigation with a plumber and a gardener. She discovered she did have some irrigation leaks and her bill would have been reduced by $160 for the leakage.
Scholl took this information to the city and for four months appealed her bill. The city, she said, would not accept any data other than its own, refusing to acknowledge Scholl’s leak. In fact, Scholl recalled, the city offered her at least two separate smaller sums as adjustments. It wasn’t until Scholl referenced her friend, Lobanovsky, whose two high bills had been reduced in 2012, that the city agreed to reduce her bill as indicated by Scholl and her gardener’s adjustment math.
“Based on my experience, I want to have the city inform residents about irrigation systems leaks and indicate that a (current) ‘no leak’ reading excludes irrigation,” Scholl said.
Scholl said she inquired incredulously as to why, at first, the city would not accept her calculations, and then why it did eventually reduce her bill. She said she would like to better understand the billing and to prevent future errors, but was offered no explanation.
“I’ve dealt with developing countries and war zones and all of these things that people think are so humongous and difficult, but none of that compares to the mess I’ve had to deal with the city and its water system,” Scholl said.
Both Giovanatto and Takasugi, however, insist the city’s new metering system would flag any irregular usage, prompting a more in-depth look at meter readings to rule out leaks.
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Part Two will explore the city’s new water metering software system, upcoming changes in water bills and lingering questions about what appear to be massive billing errors.