Last month, Rio Rico resident Leticia Esparza was notified by her water and sewer provider that there was a leakage problem on her property. She immediately began looking for a plumber and had the problem fixed the following day, she said.
However, the bill she received at the end of the month reflected the water lost during the leak, digging a significant hole in her pocket.
“I received the monthly bill – and it’s just me, there’s no one else in my house – and the bill was for $609,” Esparza said, adding that she called her provider, Liberty Utilities, to ask for a leak adjustment as a form of financial relief for her high bill.
“They told me, ‘Oh, we don’t do that.’ But that’s not fair. In cases like this incident, when the problem wasn’t your fault, there should be forgiveness,” Esparza said.
Martin Garlant, operations manager for Liberty Utilities, said the company follows state regulations when billing customers for their water service, including leakage issues.
“Anything beyond the meter is owned and maintained by the customer, so we’re not responsible if something breaks, if something happens to it, which I believe was the case in this situation,” Garlant said.
Another private-sector utility that provides service in Santa Cruz County, the Baca Float Water Company in Tubac, said it follows a similar approach toward leaks on a customer’s property. EPCOR, which also serves customers in Tubac, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates privately owned utilities in the state, “encourages” the companies to take steps to maintain their water losses at under 10 percent so the extra expense isn’t passed on to consumers. But spokeswoman Nicole Capone said the ACC has no official policy on leak adjustments, and that “anything on the customer’s side of the meter would be (the customer’s) responsibility.”
A Google search shows that a number of public-sector utilities outside of Santa Cruz County will adjust a water bill due to a leak on the customer’s side of the line, as long as the customer can show they moved promptly to fix it, and with limits placed on the number of adjustments granted to a particular account.
The City of Tucson, according to its website, will adjust a residential water bill once the customer’s water use has returned to normal, as long as no other adjustment has been given in the past three years. Then, the utility will charge the customer the current rate for the amount of water used during the same month of the previous year. The Metropolitan Domestic Water Improvement District, which also serves areas of Tucson, has a nearly identical policy.
The Arlington County, Va. water utility requires proof that the leak has been fixed – such as a plumber’s receipt – and will then deduct 50 percent of the excess water use from the customer’s bill. The water bureau at the City of Portland, Ore. will adjust a bill as long as the leak has been repaired within 30 days of a customer learning about it, and will grant an account one adjustment per 12-month period for a leak that does not go into the sewer system and one adjustment for a leak that does, such as a toilet leak, according to its website.
The City of Nogales offers sewer bill adjustments for leaks incurred between November and February. However, it gives no adjustments to customers whose water bill is inflated due to a leak on their property, said Alejandro Barcenas, the city’s public works director.
“Sometimes, when we see that there’s a house that is not occupied and there’s a leak running, we sometimes close the meter and wait for someone to call and we explain to them that we didn’t want them to run a big bill,” he said. “We also advise the customer that something is going inside, for them to check their system. That’s the only thing that we do.”
In terms of bill payment, the one remedy the City of Nogales offers to water customers affected by a leak is that it allows them to pay off their higher water bills over an extended period of time – a gesture also offered by Liberty Utilities and the Baca Float Water Company.
“We absolutely will work with our customers to pay down the payment over a long period of time,” said Garlant of Liberty Utilities.
“Unfortunately in this case, it was something that was on the customer side of the service (and) it was a large amount of water,” he added, in reference to Esparza’s leak in Rio Rico.
Some small companies, Capone of the ACC said, do offer insurance that covers the water line from the meter to the entry of the customer’s residence, as well as training for their customers to learn how to perform leak detection tests on their toilets to avoid those higher bills.
But Esparza is determined to keep pushing for leak adjustments for herself and other local consumers.
As of Monday morning, she said she had spoken to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors about the issue and had collected approximately 80 signatures from other customers who are also unsatisfied with the service.
“I’m trying to collect as much as I can. From there, I want to go back in person to the board of supervisors when they have a meeting,” she said. “This is going to help a lot of people, not just me.”