Water customers across the city of San Diego have contacted NBC 7 Responds with complaints they are being charged by the city for more water than they actually used. These customers are not talking about their water rates, rather homeowners say their water use suddenly skyrocketed in one or more billing periods, leading to hundreds of dollars in higher charges.
The city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department, which oversees residential water billing, is standing by those bills claiming they are accurate and that people need to pay for it.
“Part of it probably is I’m a child of the depression,” Beverly Bradley in Pacific Beach told NBC 7 Responds, “I was born during a major drought in the Midwest.”
That’s why Beverly said she always watches her water use closely. Beverly usually pays $50-$150 every two months but last May, Beverly said her jaw dropped when she received a bill for over $400.
Beverly said the bill stated she used more water than she had ever used since moving to her home 25 years ago.
Marilyn Jenkins out of Liberty Station found herself in the same situation last year.
“I don’t even shower here, I use very little water,” Marilyn said.
Marilyn said she usually pays a little over $100 for her water every two months but for the billing period of May and June 2016, her bill jumped dramatically.
“It was $301 and when we checked it out, it was for 26,000 gallons of water,” Marilyn said, “That’s enough for two swimming pools.”
Beverly and Marilyn were convinced there was no way they used that much water. Both women called the city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department, hoping there was an easy explanation.
At first, Beverly and Marilyn said they were told they must have a water leak on their properties. Both told us their properties were checked by experts and no leaks were found.
Beverly and Marilyn told NBC 7 Responds another theory they had as to why they were being charged for an increase in water usage: their water meters being replaced in the months prior to the water usage spike.
According to the city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department, the city began installing AMI-ready or smart water meters in 2012. These new smart meters can relay daily water readings wirelessly, rather than having someone manually read a meter every two months.
The city said customers can also monitor their water usage online and the technology helps home conservation efforts.
NBC 7 Responds filed a public records request for every water meter repair or replacement in the city of San Diego for the last five years. After reviewing thousands of entries, NBC 7 Responds found both Beverly and Marilyn’s meters had been replaced under the city’s AMI-ready roll out in the months prior to the usage spike.
While the new meters have been installed for Beverly and Marilyn, the smart meters have not been turned on yet, meaning their water meters are still being read manually.
The city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department told NBC 7 Responds the meter replacements had nothing to do with their high water usage reading.
To see if your water meter was repaired or replaced within the last five years, click here.
When water customers still feel their bill is inaccurate and they have checked their property for a water line leak, NBC 7 Responds confirmed the customer’s next option is to ask for what’s called a “controversy test.”
A “controversy test” is when the city pulls your water meter to test if it’s working properly. If the meter is proven to be broken, the city will credit your water bill. If the meter passes the test, the water customer will owe the balance on their water bill plus an additional $66 charge for the test.
According to experts in the water meter field, cities charging for meter tests is not uncommon.
NBC 7 Responds requested information on how often water customers are requesting “controversy tests” in the city of San Diego. The city told NBC 7 Responds they only had “controversy test” records dating back to May 2015 when the city began charging customers for the tests.
According to the data released by the Public Utilities Department, the number of “controversy tests” requested by customers has gone up the past three years. In 2015, the city performed 50 tests on meters and in 2016, the city performed 52 tests. In 2017, city water customers requested 79 “controversy tests” on water meters.
After testing Beverly’s meter, the city determined her meter was working fine and she would owe the bill she was originally sent.
After NBC 7 Responds pointed out some clerical issues in the controversy test results Beverly received, the Public Utilities Department decided to waive her $66 fee. In an email, the Public Utilities Department told NBC 7 Responds the fee waiver was, “not because it [the controversy test] was not performed correctly but to offset the inconvenience/confusion created by our error in the letter/communication to the customer.”
The city’s Public Utilities Department also determined Marilyn’s water meter was working correctly but decided to give her a one-time “exceptional high consumption credit” towards her water bill.
When NBC 7 Responds asked the city about problems surrounding the city’s water meters or meter equipment, Jerry McCormick with the city of San Diego's Communications Department said, “The City has had no exceptional or unexpected problems regarding the AMI equipment supplied by our vendors.”
McCormick added the city expects to have AMI or smart meter technology installed on all meters by February 2020.