San Antonio Water System (SAWS) President and CEO Robert Puente said a "perfect storm" was the culprit behind the abnormally high water bills that some SAWS customers received in districts 8, 9 and 10.
A combination of SAWS estimating bills because of staffing issues, this year's unique weather pattern, and the replacement of old meters with new, more accurate meters has led to the recent increase in some bills.
"These are reasons why it happened, these are not excuses," Puente said.
To further explain these reasons, SAWS will host "rapid response sessions" for customers on Saturday, Oct. 3 from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the Tobin Library at Oakwell and from 1:30-4:30 p.m. at the Cody Branch Library. SAWS will host more meetings if bill complaints persist.
When SAWS does not have the manpower to read all of the 450,000 meters in the city, the water company estimates an individual's water usage according to their previous month's bill. Earlier this spring, SAWS customers enjoyed low bills because of the unusually wet and cool weather. When summer approached, drought restrictions were in place so people couldn't water their lawns as much. But come July, most restrictions were lifted and many customers started aggressively watering to make up for lost time.
"It's those large lots with big irrigation systems that are really affected in a lot of cases," said Anne Hayden, SAWS public relations manager.
Those customers were not accurately billed for the amount of water they were using in July because SAWS didn't have enough meter readers on staff to keep up. Customers' bills were instead estimated, using water use data from the previous month's lower usage.
When August and September bills came around, bills were higher because meter readers were able to obtain actual use data and SAWS billed them accordingly, surprising many residents with a higher bill.
When the meter is read for the actual amount of water used, the difference between the estimation and the actual usage is calculated and sent to the customer. About 50,000 SAWS customers have recently received that bill.
"We were catching up," Hayden said, referring to the recent meter reading. "We do this when we can get people back on the ground."
But when meter readers catch up, some individuals end up being placed in a higher tier than appropriate, causing their cost to significantly jump. To address this issue, SAWS will use a computer program to categorize customers into the correct tier and rebate them the difference.
"We've been a champion on conservation and so our policies and rates should be incentivizing a reduction of usage," Mayor Ivy Taylor said, following up with a question to Puente about how SAWS will continue to incentivize reduced water usage.
"Water conservation is a mantra for SAWS. ...We understand this billing hiccup may have affected that but we are going to work as diligently as possible to make sure that the numbers are true numbers whether it is monetary amount or usage amount," Puente replied.
In total, SAWS will most likely credit more than $1 million to customers' accounts and plans to have all bills back on track in 60 to 90 days.
When Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) attended his district's monthly homeowners association meeting, he received complaints from about 75 constituents distressed about their high water bill. Krier contacted Puente, who quickly agreed to stand before City Council to address questions and concerns.
"Citizens have the right to believe that their water bill is being calculated accurately and fairly every month," Krier said. "I was astonished that we were doing a lot of estimating and I was astonished that old meters read more slowly than new meters."
Puente explained the mishap and presented short and long-term solutions for the problem during Thursday's meeting.
SAWS has sent, and is in the process of sending, letters to those individuals who will likely receive higher bills than usual.
Come January, if a bill is estimated, SAWS will inform customers of the estimation on the bill itself and a corrected bill will shortly follow.
"There will be estimations, but my goal is to have only those (meters) estimated if there is a legitimate reason to have them estimated," he said.
A "legitimate reason" could include a yard with a vicious dog or a car parked on top of a meter.
"These mass estimations are what we have to get a handle on, and what we have to control, and what we have to stop," he said.
During SAWS' October board meeting, Puente will ask the board to authorize hiring and outsourcing an additional 15 meter reader positions, bringing the total to 57.
"We have 21 cycles and the meter readers will be able to read 400-500 meters a day and collectively that should be able to handle it," he said.
Puente noted that customers have presented ideas to curb the estimated readings, such as using an app to send a photo of their meter to SAWS each month.
For now, SAWS is asking customers to pay their most recent bill until the problem can be resolved within 30 days.
"Pay your last bill, you're not going to be charged late fees and your water is not going to be cut off," Puente said. "That will give us time to look at the problem and correct it."
Some cities have automated meters, including Arlington, but Puente said the cost-effectiveness for automated readers is not yet feasible for San Antonio. While CPS Energy has electrically powered meters, SAWS meters are buried underground and "essentially have to be battery operated," Puente said.
*Top image: San Antonio Water System (SAWS) President and CEO Robert Puente. Photo by Joan Vinson.