High water usage at Liberty Place leaves residents scratching heads
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
When Jennifer Zandt opened her water bill from the City in November, something immediately seemed off. It requested she pay $179.24 for a recorded use of 18,200 gallons of water.
For the family of four living in a small duplex apartment at Liberty Place, this marked a roughly 728 percent increase from the previous month’s usage.
Zandt’s husband called the City of Liberty Hill to dispute the amount, and after confirming the accuracy of the family’s meter reading, a representative told him to check his sprinkler system and talk to the property manager.
“Basically, if it goes through the meter, that water has been used,” Assistant City Administrator Amber Lewis explained to The Independent. “That amount of water has been consumed in some way. Either through a leak, excessive use, or just something the resident isn’t aware they’re doing. We’ve never had a faulty meter.”
Zandt says they have not had their sprinklers on since summer, when they first moved to this brand new duplex development at Carl Shipp Road and Loop 332. Their usage through the months leading up to November hovered between 2,600-3,000 gallons every cycle.
Representatives for the property managers, HRG Austin, and the construction contractors, San Gabriel Builders, both say they’ve never heard of a customer neglecting to turn them off.
The Zandts aren’t the only family living in the new development to consider their water bills unusual.
“We keep calling the City to ask if bills this high are normal for the area,” said Jamie Hugh, whose family has lived in a duplex unit in the complex since it opened in July 2016. “Every time they tell us ‘yes, it is.’ I just don’t understand it.”
Jason Stanley said the bill for his family of three is consistently $10 – $20 higher than his work assistant, a single woman, who lives in the same complex.
“And I know my usage is definitely higher,” he said.
“It feels like every other person has extraordinarily high or unusual high bills,” he added.
Craig Hecht, a broker for HRG Austin, said that the company is aware “that some people in the development have seen a spike in their bill,” and that they’ve contacted the builders of the development, who are now in communication with the City.
In many cases the bills reported by interviewed families, which ranged from $100-$200, agreed with or were slightly above the average residential costs for residential units hooked up to the city’s water and sewer system.
Lewis, who also serves as chief financial officer for the City, put that average amount at $100.19. Broken down, that number comes from a combination of the average cost for residential sewer services, $44.35, and assuming the average household uses 6,000 gallons per month, $55.84, for the water use. Rates were last increased by the City following a rate study in 2014.
After a recorded usage of 5,800 gallons in December, down from November’s 18,200 gallons, the Zandts’ December bill cost $5.46 more than this average.
The Zandts’ recorded usage of 18,400 gallons is within the range of what could be expected of a sprinkler system going off twice a day for a property roughly 1/4th of an acre, according to a document of scenarios calculated by Severn Trent, a utility water consulting group.
Duplex units in the development measure at 1,230 square feet, or approximately 1/35th of an acre — and the building occupies the overwhelming majority of that lot space. Each unit has an L-shaped gap between their building and the fence for a yard.
Many residents in the development who spoke to The Independent said they feel their bills are too high, and believe that inaccurate city water meters are to blame.
Lewis and Wayne Bonnet, the city’s Director of Public Works, said the meters at the development are brand new, and have been confirmed by the city for their accuracy.
Lewis said she was aware of only two complaints to come out of the development related to water usage.
“Once a month, we drive around and pick up the meter readings by radio. The software system, which we’ve had for nine years, is really good at that,” said Bonnet. “If there’s a high read, we go out and hand read it just to make sure our software is operating properly. More times than not, we get the same reading. In the time that I’ve been here, we’ve not had one meter go bad.”
Lewis and Bonnet both encouraged residents who feel their water bills are too high to first check the meters themselves to record usage and to contact the City for a detailed report of their water usage. A leak, or any malfunctioning parts on their end, they said, is a problem for the property manager.
If a resident wants to dispute a bill, “the City will work with anybody any way we can to come to a resolution,” Bonnet said, “we’re always trying to come up with a solution to help.
“But our actual responsibility stops at the meter. Once it passes through the meter, it’s not the City’s ball at that point,” he said.
In the Zandts’ case, Lewis and Bonnet believe their recorded use in November of 18,200 gallons came from their unit’s sprinkler system. Lewis said “the only other complaint I’m aware of at the development related to water usage was resolved to be the sprinkler system.”
Residents at that development, she added, might not be fully aware of the irrigation system each unit is equipped with.
Having examined the Zandts’ data log, Bonnet said “there are certain patterns you can see with their usage.”
“[The sprinkler system] could be malfunctioning, or just coming on in the night and they don’t notice it,” Bonnet continued. “The sprinklers can be automated. And from the data log we see, they’re on about two times a day. We see a spike between 5:30-5:40 [a.m.], and 8:30-8:40. I’m not sure of the consumption, but it’s a distinct pattern daily.”
This, they reiterated, puts the responsibility back to the resident and property manager.
Hecht said his company is not aware of any instance in which a tenant has neglected to turn their sprinkler system off.
Doug Welch, from San Gabriel Builders, said, “in the past, some landscapers have had to help some people dial their sprinklers back accordingly, but I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this. It’s bizarre.
“With that much consumption, in those yards, you would have a lot of water somewhere,” he said.
“As soon as the summer’s over,” Hecht said, “and it begins to cool off, those sprinklers would create a marsh. There just isn’t enough sun to absorb that massive amount of water. If they were coming on every day, twice a day, you would know very quickly. It would become pretty obvious that something was going on.”
The comment echoed an observation by Lewis that, “if you drive by the development, you can tell the people are over-watering. There’s standing water in the ditch along Loop 332.”
The pool of water in question, situated between the road and the backyard fence for units in the development, was observed by The Independent last Friday as stretching along a distance on Loop 332 that spanned the length of several homes. No other standing water was observed in the area.