Since 2015, San Diego’s Water Department has refunded water customers more than $8.3 million, according to new data obtained by NBC 7 Responds and media partner Voice of San Diego.
The bulk of the $8.3 million refund total was paid to the U.S. Navy, which received $4.7 million in October 2017 for years of water overcharges at the Naval base facilities in Point Loma.
A spokesperson for the city confirmed the refund was issued in late 2017 after it was discovered that water passing through the Navy’s water meter, tied to the Point Loma facility account, was delivered to water customers across the city. This resulted in the Navy paying for water it did not use.
The Navy did not respond to NBC 7’s request for comment but a city spokesperson said the issue stemmed from the “complexity of the [water] metering system” that services the Navy’s Point Loma facilities.
A city spokesperson added that the Navy's billing has been accurate since the refund was issued.
The amount and number of refunds issued by the city’s Public Utilities Department have increased in recent years.
City data shows that in 2018, the city’s water department issued more than $1.1 million in refunds. More than half a million dollars was paid to customers for billing concerns or for what the city refers to as “exceptional high bill adjustments.”
The city said “exceptional high bill adjustment” refunds went to customers who challenged their bill but after an investigation, the city couldn’t explain the reason for the recorded high water use. Residential water customers who paid their bills on-time regularly were more likely to receive the adjustments.
“[I was] very upset. You know it's not like I can go to another water company and say, ‘I'd rather have your water,’” said Maria Villegas out of Rancho Bernardo.
Villegas was one of the thousands of water customers that saw unexpected spikes on her water bills last year.
NBC 7 Responds spoke to Villegas as part of its year-long open investigation into the water department over allegations of mismanagement inside the department and hundreds of complaints about unusually high water bills, as well as the city’s response to those bills.
“Probably the biggest part is that whole piece of letting us think that somehow it was our fault,” said Villegas in October.
Villegas said customer service representatives for the water department repeatedly told her the high bills were caused by her excessive water use or a possible leak. Villegas said no leaks were found and she denied that her family had used more water. In fact, she said they had stopped watering their lawn as a way to conserve water during the drought.
That’s when Villegas contacted NBC 7 Responds for help.
Shortly after NBC 7 Responds published Villegas’ story, the Public Utilities Department contacted her and eventually refunded more than $1,800.
Villegas was not alone. Not counting the $4.7 million payment to the Navy, 2018 saw the largest amount of refunds paid out by the water department in the last four years.
Since January more than 2,200 water customers received refunds. A majority of those refunds were for unexplainable high water use.
“The Public Utilities Department routinely reviews customer billing information and proactively issues refunds when discrepancies or errors occur,” said Nicole Darling, a spokesperson for the city. “The department’s priority is to ensure that customers only pay for the water they use and not a penny more.”
The surge in city refunds comes with scrutiny over how San Diego’s Public Utilities Department has operated in the past. The department continues to face two City Auditor reviews and an internal investigation into the department’s “internal management structure.”
In November, NBC 7 Responds released “Flood of Distrust” - a 30-minute look into this year’s findings as the team continues to investigate the city’s Public Utilities Department. Watch Part One of the special below:
To watch the full special, click here.