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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Frequently asked high water usage questions answered

We’ve received several inquiries from residents who had water bills with higher water usage than they expected.

The city is committed to delivering reliable, safe and high quality water services. Part of that commitment is working with our customers to investigate possible causes of high water usage.

Please reach out to our billing team anytime by email at ub@westminsterco.gov or call 303-658-2405. You can also submit a ticket through www.accesswestminster.us which will be routed to the correct staff who can review your account.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about high water usage.

Why are residents seeing a spike in water usage?

About half of residential annual water consumption is used outside and outdoor water usage is very dependent on weather. Irrigation systems use more water than many people realize. A 20 minute irrigation cycle on a normal yard uses about 1,500 gallons - equal to about 1,000 toilet flushes. Leaks, toilets, irrigation system leaks, and changes in behavior, such as more people at home, are also sources of increased usage.

The weather since May 1 has been hotter and drier than average.  Combined with more people at home because of COVID-19, residential water usage was 33% higher compared to June 2019. Water usage for July will be available soon and is likely consistent with this trend.

The city can’t identify the exact causes for increased usage without taking a closer look at usage data with each customer, so please reach out if you have any questions. When the city is made aware of issues, staff can investigate high water usage.

Are new meters causing spikes in usage?

The city has seen some recent reports on social media that new water meters are causing higher water bills. This is a bit misleading. Meters underreport usage as they age, but only slightly. A new meter will more accurately account for water usage if a customer’s old meter was underreporting usage. Still, it is anticipated that this difference will be minimal (about three percent). The new meters being installed conform to all industry standards set by the American Water Works Association.

New meters will also help customers by providing much more timely information about their water usage. A customer portal is anticipated to be available next summer. Customers will have access to their water usage on an hourly basis and will be able to set up alerts for high usage and leaks.

Is there assistance for people who are seeing a massive spike in their bills?

The city offers a number of programs to help its water customers. The city offers a $50 one-time grant for customers financially impacted by COVID-19. The city also continues to provide an income assistance program that provides a $15 monthly credit for qualified customers. You can learn more about these assistance programs at www.cityofwestminster.us/waterbillassistance.

The city can also provide a leak credit if a customer experiences a leak that causes high water usage. Customers can contact the city’s Utility Billing team to learn more about this process.

The city also offers a number of free or discounted conservation programs that help customers use water wisely. In fact, customers that participate in the city’s free irrigation consultations save $150 offer their annual water bill on average. Learn more about these programs at www.cityofwestminster.us/Residents/Water/Conservation.

The city recently voted not to increase rates because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are residents seeing higher bills?

A rate increase was approved in 2018 and went into effect January 2020. Tier 3 rates are $1.20 / 1,000 gallons more than they were in 2019.

The city saved $3.6 million by refinancing existing debt at a lower interest rate made available during the COVID-19 pandemic. This savings, combined with restructuring future debt payments, allow the city to fund necessary repair and replacement projects in 2021 without a rate increase. 2021 rates will be the same as 2020.

Why have rates increased?

Aging water and sewer infrastructure is the largest challenge facing the city’s water and sewer system. Investing today prevents the even higher cost of failure. A large portion of the city’s infrastructure was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s during a period of significant growth in the city. All of this infrastructure is now close to 50 years old and needs to be replaced.

Studies have shown that the city has used up half the life of its water and sewer infrastructure and 25% of the total infrastructure is already at or beyond its designed life.

Over the last ten years, the city averaged about $30 million a year in water and sewer construction projects.

Based on comprehensive engineering studies, staff recommended increasing the city’s investment in repairing or replacing its existing infrastructure at an average of $60 to $80 million a year. The city’s Long Term Planning process systematically identifies the right projects at the right time to invest ratepayers’ funds as efficiently as possible.

Did the billing period change and bump a large number of people into a new tier? Why did the billing period change?

City code allows for billing periods of 27 to 33 days which is consistent with many other water utilities and has not changed for many years. A billing period is the time between our two most recent meter readings. Water used in this period is what is included on the monthly utility bill. The billing period fluctuates based on holidays, weekends and staff availability and fluctuates between 27 and 33 days throughout the year. It does not stay at 33 days all year.

If a customer reaches Tier 3 rates at 20,000 gallons of usage, only the water used above that amount is charged Tier 3 rates.

How many customers are impacted by Tier 3 water rates?

Tier 3 water rates go into effect after using 20,000 gallons of water in a given month. About 75% of city water customers never reach the third tier. About 10% of residential customers are low water users using about 3,000 gallons of water every month on average,

Approximately 80% of the residential water customers use about 8,000 gallons a month on average and about 10% of residential customers are high water users using about 25,000 gallons of water every month. 

Why does the city charge tiered rates?

There are two major reasons that the city uses a tiered rate structure: conservation and cost of service.

  1. Conservation: Water is a precious and limited resource in Colorado and tiered rates are used by the vast majority of utilities along the Front Range. Tiered water rates have been used by the city since 1975 to encourage water conservation. The lowest rate tier corresponds to an amount of water sufficient to meet basic indoor needs like drinking and bathing.  Each subsequent tier charges a higher rate and is designed to send a price signal to households when using water for non-essential things like irrigating lawns to encourage wise water use. A study conducted by the city in 2014 found that the city’s conservation efforts have limited additional rate increases.
  2. Cost of service: The city is an irrigation-season peaking utility with drinking water infrastructure, including treatment plants, pumps, tanks and pipes, sized to meet water demand on the highest water use day of the year, typically in July. Generally speaking, if there was no outdoor irrigation in the city, the water infrastructure would only need to be a third of the size it is now, making it much less expensive to operate and maintain.

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