Homeowners in the city of San Diego who find their water bill is overblown have limited options. The city tells them to check for leaks and if the homeowners find none, their last option is to have their water meter tested.
NBC 7 Responds wanted to find out if the city’s water meter testing procedure is fair to customers.
After filing public records requests for all water meter testing results performed by the city, NBC 7 Responds found the results were incomplete and an expert said those results could not prove if the meters actually passed or failed the tests.
To read Part One of our investigation into the city's water meter testing, click here.
Complaints regarding high water use have been heard across the city and have even led the San Diego City Auditor to expand an investigation into the Public Utilities Department’s billing and business practices.
NBC 7 Responds first heard about these complaints in July of 2017 when Beverly Bradley from Pacific Beach reached out, saying she was charged for more water than she had used last spring.
After the city told her she must have a leak, crews she hired found none at her home. That’s when Beverly was told she could request a “controversy test” or accuracy test on her water meter.
The Public Utilities Department performed the test and told Beverly her meter passed, meaning she would have to pay her high water bill plus a $66 fee for the test.
Last September, NBC 7 Responds filed a public records request for Beverly’s meter test results and shared them with Tom Kelly out of the Washington D.C. area. Kelly chairs the Standards Committee for the American Water Works Association.
We asked Kelly to review Beverly’s water meter test results and he said the results were incomplete.
“I would have some questions about these tests,” Kelly said.
When performing a “controversy test”, the city tests three different flows of water: low, medium and high. Kelly said each flow test should have a meter reading recorded at the beginning and end of each test to support the percentage given on how accurate the meter performed.
Those readings were not included in Beverly’s test results.
In October, NBC 7 Responds filed a public records request for all water meter test results for the past five years. The city told us they only had records dating back to 2015 when they began charging customers for water meter tests.
According to the records we received in January, 181 water customers were charged over $12,000 for tests after their meters passed.
When we showed Kelly all of the city’s testing results, he said the results were incomplete, just like Beverly’s.
“There are no numbers to support these [accuracy] percentages,” Kelly said.
NBC 7 Responds found individual meter readings were not recorded after each water flow test, meaning there was no way to prove if the meter had indeed earned the accuracy percentage stated. An overall reading for the test was included but Kelly said that’s not enough.
“You have a beginning reading and end reading for the entire test, which is going to give you an overall accuracy of the meter over that flow range but it’s not going to support the other numbers that are in there,” Kelly said.
Kelly, who has been designated as an expert in the field and has testified on behalf of utilities in court, said he would not be able to testify to the accuracy of San Diego’s results.
Based only on the testing result records, Kelly said, “In my own personal opinion, this would not be a valid, accuracy test.”
NBC 7 Responds asked the Public Utilities Department if they had any more test results for each of the tests performed. The city did not answer our question but in an email last month, Jerry McCormick with the City’s Communications Office said, “Unless the dial was close to turning over, the read would not change.”
McCormick also said the city’s “work order management system does not allow us to enter decimals.”
“This would not pass muster with us,” Kelly said about the lack of readings.
NBC 7 Responds sent the city a list of questions regarding the controversy test results and Kelly’s findings.
The city did not answer those questions, rather McCormick sent this statement, “We appreciate you bringing this to us. We are reviewing the American Water Works Association standards related to this matter. Based on analysis like this and the expanded audit now underway by our independent auditor, we will continue to implement operational changes as appropriate to ensure our customers pay only for the water they use.”
At a news conference on Thursday, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said a city auditor’s investigation into the Public Utilities Department’s billing practices will be expanded to include how the city tests customer water meters.
“That is one of the things I’ve instructed Vic [Bianes] to look at, those controversy-those tests to make sure those are accurate as well,” Faulconer said, “That’s part of the top-down review, we want to look at every single process. It has to be correct. If it’s not correct, it has to be fixed.”