After noticing unusually high bills not long after the city installed new water meters in her neighborhood, Tabitha Williams reached out to other neighborhoods with new meters.
The results were similar.
Williams’ neighborhood, Wedgwood East, arranged for a virtual meeting with the Fort Worth Water Department. During the meeting, department leaders explained that the old meters weren’t registering accurate usage and the new ones are.
“The water department said that higher bills are usually attributed to leaks that were previously undetected by the inaccurate meters or irrigation systems that are using water that wasn’t being read by the old meters,” Williams said.
She believes this premise is problematic.
Many neighbors — in her community and others that she contacted — reported extremely high bills for several months, followed by somewhat normal bills. Williams also discovered that residents were not only experiencing drastically higher water bills but also water main breaks, noises in their pipes, and very high or very low water pressure.
“Leaks don’t fix themselves,” Williams said, “and irrigation systems don’t suddenly choose to use less water, so I find [the water department’s] explanation to be false.”
In an email, Mary Gugliuzza, communications coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department, said that Fort Worth began using new meters in 2016 in new developments and when exchanging meters in existing parts of the system. The meters use radio transmitters to collect readings. Gugliuzza said that the transmitters were not activated until July 2019 because the network to receive and process the data was not yet in place.
Williams said that some residents reported bills that were even triple what they were before the new water meters were installed.
“That would mean the old meter was extremely inaccurate and the water department failed by not replacing them much, much sooner,” Williams said. “My other concern is … if what the water department says is 100% true and it’s leaks and irrigation systems, that means they knew this was going to cost people significantly more money, and they are doing it during a pandemic, when many people are already financially devastated.”
Williams worries there are certain parts of the city where homeowners will be priced out of their houses by sky-high water bills.
Wedgwood East resident Rebecca Vrazo said her water bills are usually very consistent, “about $120 a month, except in the summer months, [when] it might go up for watering the garden or something. I think they changed out my meter in September. In December, [my bill] had doubled. It was $242, and the consumption had gone from 17 to 45. Then it doubled again the next month … to 88 consumption and $450 for the water bill.”
In her email, Gugliuzza said, “Mechanical water meters do not start registering higher than actual consumption of water over time. They only start registering lower than actual consumption. Over a period of time, customers view the under-registered consumption as their normal usage, and when the meter is replaced with an accurate meter, their consumption appears to spike as it returns to an accurate level.”
Vrazo started an investigation through the water company. Their electronic data showed the usage of the house hour by hour for two weeks. Thinking she had a leak, she hired a plumber but was frustrated when told there was no leak.
“There’s something going on with those new meters that is tripping them up,” Vrazo said. “We couldn’t have used water constantly throughout the night for two weeks. That’s impossible.”
Vrazo experienced two months with unexplained overages before her bill decreased after January. There seems to be no way for residents to prove that they didn’t use the water that they were billed for.
The water department’s “only proof that we used it is that they have a meter that says we did,” Vrazo said. “It’s crazy.”
Vrazo said she reached out to City Councilmember Jungus Jordan, hoping to bring the higher water bills to the city’s attention. “I know he’s working on trying to get some satisfaction for several people on this, but so far what I’ve done is send in the request for reimbursement.”
Jordan responded to Williams’ concerns through email, saying, “I will ask the director of the water department to research the issues addressed and work with you and your neighbors to resolve the concerns.”
A few weeks ago, Williams said, the water department gave a presentation during a city council meeting “similar to the virtual meeting they held with us, but nothing has been done to provide any relief to my neighbors, whose bills have become unaffordable.”
In March, Fort Worth implemented a high-bill adjustment for the new meters in response to concerns, primarily from the Wedgwood East neighborhood. Through the City of Fort Worth’s website, people can request an adjustment of their suddenly spiked usage. The Fort Worth Water Department advises residents who’ve experienced the sudden increase in response to the new meters to view the “high water use bill adjustment” link at FortWorthTexas.gov/departments/water/services/high-bills.
“We’re basically at their mercy,” Vrazo said. “The fact is that it’s not a private company and we have no option to go somewhere else … you can’t do that with the water company. In the meantime, we’re on unemployment, and this is crazy expensive for us. It’s terrible timing with COVID going on. The last thing I need is a water bill that’s $400.”
Vrazo is waiting to be refunded by the water department for half of the overages she paid for the two months her bill dramatically increased.
“We have received high bill complaints from about 2% of the new meter installations done,” Gugliuzza said, noting that 160,000 houses, including some businesses, have received new meters throughout town. “This is actually less than the number of complaints we receive from customers with the old meters. Historically, that number is about 5% a year.”
Another concern to residents is a change in water pressure since the new installs.
“The water department,” Williams said in an email, “told us that we sit next to a pump station, so our water pressure will always be high. They said the new meters have no effect on that and that we all need to purchase pressure-reducing valves. I think getting water to people at an unsafe pressure should be unacceptable.”
Multiple neighbors have had damage, Williams said, including sink and tub fixtures shooting off their walls, because the pressure is so high.
“I feel like my neighbors, as well as others in Fort Worth, deserve their complaints to really be investigated,” Williams said. “My personal preference would be for the water department to stop install of new meters until the online portal is running, check for leaks before installing, and set up a bulk install of pressure-reducing valves.”
The water department, Gugliuzza said, is “halfway through the meter installations citywide. The target is to complete the installations in about another year.”
Williams suggested an opt-out policy for residents who do not want the new meter.