Water-bill complaints in Arlington

Arlington government officials say much of the increased use in residential water service comes from watering lawns, due in part to the hot and dry summer and fall of 2016. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Water, water, everywhere. And it’s causing quite a stink.

Not literally, but certainly figuratively: Accusations and conspiracy theories are flying as some local homeowners saw their summer/fall water bills spike significantly, and are complaining that county-government officials aren’t taking the situation seriously.

“I am underwhelmed at the staff response,” said Sharon Dorsey, president of the Waycroft-Woodlawn Civic Association.

While she did not see a big spike in her own recent water bill, Dorsey said many have.

“It’s all over my neighborhood,” she said. “People . . . are getting $2,000 bills. That’s nuts.”

Waycroft-Woodlawn is not alone. Residents of communities across North Arlington have used the Nextdoor social-media platform to complain about high bills and question why they are occurring.

Country Club Hills, Yorktown, High View Park, Old Dominion and Rock Spring are among the neighborhoods where voices of discontent are being raised.

“Hundreds of homeowners have complained about extraordinarily high water bills,” said Mike Cantwell, president of the Yorktown Civic Association. “Water usage numbers on some bills are five times higher than previous years. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Among those hit with a whopping bill was Rachel Cohen of the Rock Spring neighborhood. Writing on Nextdoor Yorktown, she said her home’s quarterly water bill rose from $360 in the summer of 2015 to $2,200 in 2016.

“All water systems have been checked – internal and external – with no signs of leakage,” Cohen wrote. “Water usage in the current cycle has reverted to historical (and lower) norms.”

In the crosshairs is the county government’s Department of Environmental Services, which provides water and sewer service. In a response to concerns, the department investigated and found “no systemic utility-bill discrepancies.”

In an interview, the department’s chief operating officer – Mike Moon – said there could be several reasons for bills that are hefty, yet accurate. He pointed specifically to a hotter and more dry summer/fall season; residents who irrigated frequently to compensate for the lack of rainfall could have seen their bills spike as a result.

“That is the primary issue,” Moon said of irrigation systems that, for a one-eighth-acre lot, can deposit up to 12,500 gallons of water per month on a lawn. (The typical household uses about 5,800 gallons of water during an average month, county officials say.)

Frequent car-washing, leaky faucets or toilets and an increase in household size also can impact bills, Moon said. Water and sewer rates, totaling $13.27 per 1,000 gallons, have not changed since mid-2015.

To some civic leaders, the county government should be looking at its own operations – from aging infrastructure to computer-software issues – rather than putting all the onus on homeowners.

“The county government refuses to look at other possible causes for the high water bills,” Cantwell said. “Their immediate response is to blame the homeowner.”

County officials counter that while the issue is raising a lot of heat among neighborhoods, there actually were fewer requests from the public for investigations of high water bills than a year before.

“We haven’t seen a major increase,” Moon said, pointing to 583 high-usage-investigation requests last year compared to 617 in 2015.

Because of the hotter and less rainy summer and fall seasons, residential water consumption rose 11 percent from the same point in 2015. Moon said that he’d be concerned, and would seek an investigation, if his own bill increased more than 50 percent during any given year-over-year period.

Those with high water bills are asked to first conduct a self-assessment, looking at billing history and checking for leaks. If homeowners can present “clear evidence” of problems – and show they have been corrected – the county government offers forgiveness of between 50 percent and 100 percent of the spiked water bill as compared to a normal billing cycle.

(Information on the process can be obtained by calling 703-228-6570 or visiting the county government’s Web site at www.arlingtonva.us.)

The Arlington County Civic Federation, while not having addressed water bills directly, is monitoring the situation, said organization president Stefanie Pryor.

Pryor said that while the attention has been placed on recent billing, there is a broader topic that also needs to be discussed.

“Infrastructure that is 70 to 90 years old needs maintenance, a topic [the federation] has tried to raise repeatedly throughout the years,” she said.

The billing issue was brought before the County Board on Jan. 28. Before that, board member John Vihstadt acknowledged that the matter was a topic of hot discussion in neighborhoods.

“Staff is investigating to determine if the adage ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ is true in this instance,” Vihstadt told the Sun Gazette.

Conspiracy theories abound, ranging from the feasible to the farfetched: water-pressure increases by the county government to compensate for increased outlets; leaks caused by relining pipes; price gouging to pay for other government operations; or software problems connected to the meter-reading system.

Even if many of the instances of higher bills turn out to be due to actions of individual homeowners, the government’s response has left a sour taste in many a mouth.

“The process has not been consistent with the Arlington Way of prompt response, adequate information-sharing or accepting of appropriate responsibility,” Cohen said in an e-mail. “This has been an extremely frustrating experience.”

“It would seem to be incumbent upon staff to investigate until staff can uncover the reason,” said civic activist Suzanne Sundburg. “We are consistently told what a wonderfully professional staff we have – solving this puzzle would be a good way to prove that.”