Water Department Faces Stern Questioning Over High Water Bills - NBC 7 San Diego

Water Department Faces Stern Questioning Over High Water Bills

At a city council committee hearing, water department officials said they still do not know what is causing the unexplained spikes in water usage but will continue to address public concerns.



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    “We sincerely apologize to all customers who have been affected by this situation,” Public Utilities Department Director Vic Bianes said at a city council committee hearing Thursday, calling the recent complaints about high water bills “unprecedented.” 

    The hearing, which lasted a little over an hour, included straight-forward questioning from San Diego City Council Members, wanting to know what the water department is doing to address billing concerns from customers. 

    In the immediate future, the water department said they will be hosting workshops for customers who have billing complaints. Details on those workshops below. 

    NBC 7 Responds has been investigating high water bills since last July, when Beverly Bradley out of Pacific Beach told us her water usage shot up months after the city installed a new, smart meter to register her consumption.

    The city said Beverly’s meter was working fine and attributed her high water use to “extensive landscaping” they observed on Google Maps. 

    Since then, the problem has grown with NBC 7 Responds hearing from homeowners across the city saying they experienced the same billing issues. Of the billing complaints the water department has reviewed so far, officials said on average, homeowners have received $500 refunds. The highest refund issued was over $11,000. 

    “Just last week, one of the news stations, NBC, did a story about a resident in Pacific Beach being charged five times her normal water bill,” Councilmember David Alvarez said at the meeting. 

    Alvarez was referring to reports by NBC 7 Responds after we questioned water officials about the $60-million smart meter program. Specifically, the team has been looking into how the city conducted water meter retrofits or the process of turning old, direct-read meters into digital, smart meters.

    To see our investigation, watch below or click here.  

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    NBC 7 Responds discovered a Pacific Beach homeowner’s meter had been installed incorrectly with mismatched sized parts, signs of a water meter retrofit. Testing her water meter, we found Laura was being charged for five-times the amount of water she was actually using. 

    City Councilmember Chris Cate asked water officials about water meter retrofits. 

    “We’re currently out right now finishing up a list of about 24-hundred [meters] that we’re double checking,” Tom Howard from the Public Utilities Department said. 

    Howard said the city has only found five meters that were retrofitted incorrectly with mismatched parts. So far, they’ve gone back and inspected at least 1,100 meters, none of which were retrofitted incorrectly. 

    Has your water meter been replaced? You can check by using our tool. Click here to learn more.  

    At Thursday’s hearing, the water department said by next week, they will have installed a new, “state of the art” water meter testing bench or system. 

    This after NBC 7 Responds observed a water department “controversy test,” or water meter accuracy test last month. After filming the test, we shared the results with Tom Kelly, who sits on the American Water Works Association’s Testing Standards Committee. 

    Kelly said the equipment was “borderline obsolete” and noted testing results dating back to 2015 were incomplete, meaning he could not determine if the tests were performed accurately. 

    To see the two-part investigation into water meter testing, watch below or click here.  

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    In addition to the new testing system, the city announced homeowners who paid for “controversy tests” since July 2017 will be refunded and the city will temporarily not charge for future tests.  

    According to Jerry McCormick with the City Communications Office, the city has processed refunds for 103 “controversy tests”, totaling $7,262. 

    During the hearing, Bianes said for all customers who dispute high water bill charges, water officials implemented on Tuesday a “no shut off” policy, referring to shutting off a customer’s water services due to non-payment. This confused some, like Councilmember Alvarez, who was under the impression the “no shut off” policy had already been in place for weeks. 

    San Diego City Auditor Eduardo Luna attended the hearing and said his audit is currently delayed, given the Public Utilities Department has not been able to extract a certain dataset needed for his analysis. Mike Vogl, Deputy Director for the Public Utilities Department, said the reason for the delay is because the data has never had to be extracted before for this kind of use. 

    With that said, Luna added the Public Utilities Department has been “100% cooperative” with the audit. The audit, Luna explained, will focus on three areas: recent high water bill complaints, the Public Utilities Department customer service and the implementation of the city’s smart meter program.

    The water department said they are addressing every customer complaint and have doubled their customer service staff to meet call volume. 

    “Clearly this has all really helped from the customer’s perspective, to protect them, but the problem is we still do not know what’s causing this,” Alvarez said, “This is very concerning and it should be very alarming.” 

    The Public Utilities Department announced they will be hosting three customer service sessions or workshops to address water bill concerns. Staff will be on-scene to provide one-on-one support for billing questions. Details on each of the sessions are below: 

    Saturday, March 10
    9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    Public Utilties Department
    9192 Topaz Way San Diego, CA 92123

    Saturday, March 24
    9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
    Public Utilties Department
    9192 Topaz Way San Diego, CA 92123


    Saturday, March 24
    2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
    Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation
    404 Euclid Ave San Diego, CA 92114