Could strands of hanging rope be a solution to Phoenix's urban heat island?
Here's What We Know About Ahwatukee's Sometimes 'Frustrating' Water Bills
Rene Self’s grandmother’s Ahwatukee home has a gravel front yard dotted with shrubs.
“The backyard’s the same way. It’s pretty bland,” Self said. There is a purpose — the desert landscaping helps keep costs down.
She and her mom Robbie started keeping an eye on the house after her grandmother moved into an assisted living facility.
Self was shocked to open a $421 water bill from the city of Phoenix in August. The house’s average bill for the last year was around $40.
She called a plumber to check for leaks. He didn’t find any. The next month, the bill looked normal again.
Self and her mom were two of 185 people who contacted the area city councilman’s office about unusually high bills.
More than 100 Ahwatukee residents attended a town hall meeting in October demanding answers from Phoenix’s Water Services Department.
What The City Has Found So Far
After 95 people attended the town hall meeting and provided their contact information, 49 agreed to a free inspection of their meter. The city checked to make sure the right meter was registered with each home and that there were no leaks on the city side of the meter.
There were no problems found with the meters tested.
An estimated 20 people who attended the meeting later reported they had discovered leaks.
The city evaluated the water bills from residents who gave their contact information at the meeting and found no concentration of high water consumption in July or any month. About 13 customers had their highest usage in July.
The Water Services Department also reported of those same people, 14 percent had used less water in 2016 than in 2017.
A larger analysis of 400 random Ahwatukee customers also found spikes distributed through all months.
“It is a randomness and that randomness is what we would expect to find,” said Jim Swanson, deputy water services director.
When the water consumption goes back down, the assumption is that a leak was fixed. In Self’s case and several others, the water use seems to have dropped on its own and no one knows why.
“That’s very difficult to answer, right. All we can say right now is there is no issue with their meter,” Swanson said.
Contesting A Bill
On a warm November day, a white city of Phoenix truck pulled up outside Self’s grandmother’s home. Water Services Department staffers are there to inspect the water meter.
They check to make sure the identification numbers on the meter match what’s registered for the home. City meter readers drive by with a device that records water usage via radio wave. A mismatch could lead to an incorrect bill.
That’s not the case here. The field test doesn’t find any problems with the meter.
Usually a meter reread costs a customer $22 plus tax. If the original read was wrong, the fee is waived.
Customers can also request a more intensive test of the water meter. It requires removing the meter, taking it to a city facility and running water through it to ensure it’s working correctly. Like the meter reread, the fee is waived if the city finds a significant problems with the meter (per city code, if it’s overreporting water use by more than 2 percent). Otherwise it costs $253 plus tax.
Self and her mom Robbie Lange, still have a lot of questions.
“I’m just so, I’m just so frustrated,” Self said.
The pair have exchanged emails and phone calls with city Councilman Sal DiCiccio’s office and the Water Services Department.
Her grandmother died in December. Self and her mom plan to sell the house, but not until they can resolve last year’s bill.
“We just get handed off to somebody else. Passed on, passing the buck,” Lange said. “No answers.”
If residents want to contest their bill they can go through an administrative hearing. The city reports there are about 15 cases each year.
The resident and the city each make their case to a third party from Phoenix’s audit department either in person or by mail.
“They could rule completely in favor of the city, they could rule completely in favor of the customer or there could be some type of a negotiation,” said Michele Joyner, deputy water services director.
Self said she and her mother have mailed a packet of information to the city and are waiting to hear when their case might be settled. Phoenix staff would not confirm individual cases, but said there are four Ahwatukee residents in the administrative hearing process.
The Future Of Water Tracking
There is a policy meant to alert customers to major changes in water use. Joyner said it’s policy to hold a bill if water use is three times higher or lower than it’s been in the last two years.
“One of the tricky things with that is a lot of customers in the summertime use three times the water. So if they have a leak other than the summertime, that’s not going to be an indicator for us,” Joyner said.
In Phoenix, your bill only shows water use month to month. Short of walking outside and reading your own meter every day, there’s no way to see in real time if there’s a problem.
Councilman DiCiccio, who represents the area and organized the town hall meeting, told his constituents in an email that he would “be pursuing” an updated Water Services Department policy to alert customers of spikes in water usage. His office also convened a citizen working group to investigate the problem.
There have been other cities where groups of people saw spikes in their water use with no simple explanation. Santa Fe’s utility billing director quit after dozens of people complained the city’s new smart meter system overreported their water use.
Some water advocates say regularly upgrading water meters is a conservation tool. Older meters underreport how much water is used. New meters would pass on the true cost of water used to the customer.
Utility consultant Tommy McClung said the industry has been slow to adapt to new technology that makes tracking water use easier.
“Water utilities specifically … are having to respond to the consumer demand to have information at their fingertips,” said McClung, a senior manager at consulting firm West Monroe Partners.
“Water is a very local, very community-driven entity,” McClung said.
“Many water utilities are municipally owned so they’re cost of service based and sometimes the availability of capital is limited,” McClung said.
In simple terms — water departments don’t have a ton of extra money to invest in new technology.
McClung worked in Houston’s utility department and has seen firsthand how high bills spark customer’s ire, but also interest in how the service works.
He recommends utilities focus on proactive maintenance and customer services, “getting ahead of the issues, if you will, rather than just reacting to the customer receiving a bill.”
Phoenix water staff say they’re ready to take calls at 602-262-6251 from anyone who feels like their bill is wrong.
“If they believe they have a high bill they need to contact us so they can we check our equipment,” Swanson said.
What’s A Smart Meter?
Every Phoenix water customer’s meter is attached to a radio transmitter that wirelessly sends information about water consumption to a city staffer as they drive by.
“It also improves our accuracy and it improves the time in which we can read those meters and it’s actually saving us money over the long run,” Jim Swanson said.
The city started converting to so-called smart meters in 2008 and finished in June 2017. Ahwatukee’s meters were updated in 2013.
Next, the Water Services Department is converting mechanical meters to digital registers. Right now about a third of customers have digital registers.