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She owed $7K due to a water leak. Her utility saw the signs but didn’t tell her

A graphic for the Utility Bill of the Month series from the Gulf States Newsroom. The collage of photos shows a water meter in the top half of the photo. The bottom half shows a person reading over their energy bill.
Rashah McChesney
Gulf States Newsroom

This story is part of a crowdsourced project investigating utility billing issues in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Do you have a utility bill that you’d like us to look into? Submit it here, and with your permission, we may use it in one of our monthly features.

Home water leaks come with simple math: the longer a leak goes on, the more it will cost a homeowner. That’s how Claire Ahalt ended up owing roughly $7,000 in water bills.

“I pulled up the account to look at the numbers that they had run on the amount of water we had used to make sure they hadn’t put the decimal point in the wrong spot,” said Ahalt, who shares a Birmingham home with her husband and two kids. “I could not believe we had used that much water.”

Ahalt’s bills were eventually cleared away by the Birmingham Water Works Board, but the utility saw the warning signs for the leak weeks before she found out. Leaks like this waste nearly a trillion gallons of water across the country each year and can lead to higher water rates for all customers. But communication needed from utilities to prevent these leaks from going on for weeks is still not standard.

“It’s still a new idea for a lot of utilities that public communication and that kind of engagement is part of their job,” said Sara Hughes, an associate professor researching environmental policy and planning at the University of Michigan.

Missed warnings

Claire Ahalt stands by a line of hay that cuts across her lawn in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023.
Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom
Claire Ahalt stands by a line of hay that cuts across her lawn in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023. The damage to the lawn stems from replacing a leaking service line that wasted 292,000 gallons of water over several months, according to the Birmingham Water Works Board.

No puddles formed on her front lawn, and her shower pressure never faltered. The first, and only, sign of a water issue at the Ahalts’ home was the missing August bill.

That didn’t cause much concern because missing bills are common in Birmingham. About 20% of Birmingham Water Works customers had bills show up more than a month later, according to an audit released last year. Water utilities in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, also have trouble reading water meters each month and often rely on estimated bills instead. A shortage of workers to check the meters is one of the main reasons for the missing and estimated bills.

So Ahalt didn’t realize the missing bill was hiding a worse problem until she ran into a Birmingham Water Works employee checking her water meter at the end of the month. He said she had a bad leak and needed to shut off her water to the house immediately. A plumber later told Ahalt that her service line had busted. The fix ultimately cost about $2,500 and left a thin line of hay stretched across her green lawn.

Then came the bill for the wasted water: more than $7,000. Between July and September, the Ahalts had used about 292,000 gallons of water — about 65 times what they used in April.

Ahalt called Birmingham Water Works to question the charge. A customer service rep said her account was flagged internally for unusually high water use on August 10, but could not confirm or deny if the company had reached out to her about it. That left the leak going for weeks without her knowing.

Birmingham Water Works had also missed other opportunities to catch the leak earlier. A worker misread her meter in July. The leak could have been going on for two months or longer, but Ahalt didn’t find out until asking the utility worker in her front yard.

Implausible and common

Claire Ahalt inspects her water meter outside of her home in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023.
Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom
Claire Ahalt inspects her water meter outside of her home in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023. The meter kept “spinning, spinning, spinning” before Ahalt got someone to replace her leaking service line.

There’s a name for bills with a huge spike in water use — an “implausible meter reading,” a term used anytime water usage seems way off.

Water utilities see these all the time. Sometimes, it’s for an innocent reason, like the customer sodding their lawn or filling a pool. Other times, it’s just an error when reading the meter.

And sometimes, it’s a leak.

According to the 2022 audit of Birmingham Water Works, the utility saw a large increase in these alarming readings. While December 2021 had about 1,800 implausible reads, July 2022 had 5,867.

Many utilities address these flagged accounts by reaching out to the customer to see if they have an explanation for the usage. According to a spokesperson for Birmingham Water Works, the utility does contact customers about implausible meter readings, but only after it’s sure about the reading. That could mean waiting on another meter reader to confirm the implausible reading.

But Ahalt never received a warning from Birmingham Water Works about the startling reading.

“I don’t have any phone calls from Birmingham Water Works, and I now know their number very well,” Ahalt said.

Smart talk

A lack of communication from a water utility is not new. For decades, utilities have been content with quietly carrying out their duties.

“The drinking water industry was the ‘silent service’ up until 20, 30 years ago,” said George Kunkel, principal at Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting. “The water industry was happy to just be quietly doing its job in the background. As long as everybody had water and it was safe to drink — fine.”

But Kunkel said utilities should change to better catch expensive leaks — and many utilities are doing so with tech like smart water meters. These meters can flag spikes in water use the same day it happens, rather than having to wait a month or longer.

Earlier this year, Birmingham Water Works said it was looking into using smart water meters. The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans is currently making the switch.

“A lot of these events could be identified much quicker now,” Kunkel said. “Save the water. Save the anxiety for the customers. Everybody wins.”

‘It doesn’t really fix the bigger problem’

In October, Birmingham Water Works revised Ahalt’s account — bringing the total owed from the leak down from $7,000 to $350. About half of that total was for her latest water usage, a customer service representative told Ahalt.

Ahalt is happy her bill got fixed, but she isn’t enthused by how the process to dispute the bill went, including the weeks of stress and all the wasted water.

“I’m satisfied that I don’t have to pay so much money, but it doesn’t really fix the bigger problem here,” she said.

But catching leaks early and conserving water keeps the price of drinking water from increasing even faster than it already is. All this wasted water ultimately translates to higher water rates for everyone — rates that only go higher the longer it takes utilities to let customers know about leaks.

“Leaks cost the entire community,” said Christine Curtis, of the global water think tank Pacific Institute. “Even if the bill was forgiven, that water is ultimately being paid for.”

Orlando Flores Jr.
Gulf States Newsroom

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.

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