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Environment Report: About Those Crazy High Water Bills

California's biggest water users get the profile they deserve and more in our biweekly roundup of the region’s environmental news.

Image via Shutterstock

An untold number of water customers across San Diego are receiving inexplicably high water bills from the city. One gentleman told me the high charges, which he believes are inaccurate, threaten his ability to continue living in San Diego. He’s surely not alone.

The city’s Public Utilities Department has mostly blamed its customers. The department says customers must be confused by a mixture of undetected leaks; a recent rate increase of 6.9 percent; a recent billing cycle that was 10 days longer than normal; unusually hot and dry weather; and, from time to time, “meter reading inconsistencies.” The city — with a bit of gall — also suggested that people blame holiday guests who came over and used a lot of water.

Customers and members of City Council suspect something is wrong at the water department and that “meter reading inconsistencies” are more to blame than a myriad of unrelated issues.

“I don’t think that the answers they have given us thus far are ones that are relatable to what the residents are seeing in their bills,” said Councilman Chris Cate.

In January, the city received calls that prompted them to review 107 customers’ bills. By comparison, the city did 59 such reviews in January 2017 and 31 in January 2016.

But this is a case where it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise. Are these anecdotes the tip of the iceberg and a sign of something new and wrong at the water department? Or are they outliers that are getting more attention now because of media coverage and social media?

TV news, particularly our friends at NBC San Diego, have been reporting a lot on this topic lately. Once those stories started airing, people began taking a closer at their bills and finding more problems.

This isn’t just a feedback loop: NBC began its investigation last August based on complaints it had heard — long before the holidays — and didn’t air a story until January, when it had its ducks in a row. In the meantime, in December, the city noticed an uptick in customer complaints. Go on the social media site Nextdoor and it’s easy to find people in neighborhoods across the city with eye-popping bills who are sure they couldn’t have used so much water.

Unfortunately, the city has not done a good job explaining what it knows and doesn’t know. Instead, it’s been making assertions without the supportive data. One theory, which NBC has been looking into and that ABC 10 news first floated in September, is that there’s something wrong with the city’s new “smart” meters. Perhaps these high-tech meters have a flaw in them?

The water department, for its part, says unequivocally that its $67 million smart meter program is not the problem. But the department has not provided, as of last week, evidence that would support that position.

For instance, we asked for data that would show bills at homes before and after they got smart meters. Jerry McCormick, a city spokesperson, responded via email, “The analysis described above has not been conducted. Given the complexity and wide variety of unrelated factors impacting customer usage in various periods, this type of analysis is not warranted at this time.”

We also asked for data on customers whose bills had doubled, or more than doubled, from one billing cycle to the next. “Cases/concerns reported are being analyzed and investigated individually,” McCormick said. “Reviews completed to date have identified a variety of causes and in some cases that there was no material increase in the bill/usage as claimed.”

Even so, the water department seems to have gotten the message that it needs to explain itself and fast. It is working on a report, but its spokesperson noted, “With media reports of higher than normal water bills, we are focused on responding to our customers first. The Department will have additional data on the customers and a categorization of their issues by February 9th.”

In the meantime, Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who said she began hearing complaints from people in November, has asked Eduardo Luna, the city auditor, to conduct a comprehensive review of the water department’s billing procedures.

While he’s at it, Luna may want to look into something else: What happens when people get behind on their bills and the department sends them to collections. Back in 2015, attorneys at the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, known as UCAN, began providing local reporters with examples of how messy that process was for some people. The city generously provided a lot of records, but there wasn’t the sort of information available to figure out if the few bad cases were just that — a few bad cases.

There’s actually a city committee dedicated to these issues. It’s called the Independent Rates Oversight Committee, but not all the members appear to be interested in the work. At the group’s most recent meeting, in January, committee chairman Gordon Hess told me there were barely enough members present to hold a vote.

He also told me that he and another member had tried to get the committee interested in the smart meters — particularly how the program was being funded — but a majority of the committee opposed the idea.

The group cancelled its February meeting.

A final ironic note on this committee, which is known as IROC. Last year, UCAN urged the City Council to hire a special consultant to review citywide water rate increases the next time the water department proposes them. The funny thing is that the water department hires its own consultant to craft rates each time it wants to raise them. Then IROC reviews them. Then the City Council is supposed to study the rates before voting on them. The need for yet another pair of eyes suggests a lack of trust — or perhaps a lack of expertise or maybe even guts — when it comes to dealing with water rates.

Who is Stewart Resnick?

Last year, a friend and I went to see paintings at a museum in Los Angeles, featured inside a building called the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion. If you don’t know who the Renicks are, it’s damn near impossible to understand water in California. The Resnicks are the biggest farmers in the United States and, in one year, they use about as much water on their Central Valley crops as is used in all of San Diego County.

Thankfully, California Sunday Magazine has a heck of a piece unwinding the Resnicks’ place in California water politics. Others have taken a good crack at the topic, but this piece is by Mark Arax, coauthor of one of the great books on California water, The King of California, about another farming titan.

Arax delves into the wealth the Resnicks have amassed using water brought to their lands by government-built water systems. He also looks into a side deal between the Resnick farms and another major water profiteer.

In Other News

You’re going to be hearing about how we’re back in a drought. You’re going to be hearing about how Cape Town, South Africa, is about to run out of water because of a drought there. Remember, drought in America means many different things. Here, in wealthy Southern California, a drought’s dangers are staved off by money and planning. Not long ago, after all, the San Diego County Water Authority argued that there’s going to be too much water in Southern California.

The state’s three major utility monopolies, including San Diego Gas & Electric, want to ease restrictions that are meant to prevent them from killing off community choice energy programs like the one San Diego is considering. The utilities argue that their free speech rights are being harmed because of limits placed on how they can communicate with the media and government officials. The restrictions were put in place after Pacific Gas & Electric spent millions of dollars trying to kill an energy choice program in Marin County.

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