Update October 11th: Updated information posted toward the bottom in green.
How much is 1.4 million gallons of water?
It would fill the Ben Lomond High School swimming pool seven times, or a 20,000-gallon home pool 70 times. It's enough to supply the 150-acre Lagoon amusement park in Farmington for more than three months. You would have to take a 9,000 hours-long shower, or flush your toilet 875,000 times. But Rick Baur does not own a swimming pool or an amusement park. He lives in a house with two acres of land at 2586 South 1825 East in Ogden, Utah. And he was billed $9,700 for allegedly using 1.4 million gallons of water between December 19th, 2007 and April 4th, 2008. Primary story published September 26th, 2008 in the Ogden Standard-Examiner. Additional story with video provided by KSL Channel 5 and reported nationally by Fox News Channel. Also discussed on the PinchingYourPennies forum.
Complicating the issue is the fact that Baur and his wife, Monica, were out of town vacationing in the Virgin Islands from mid-December to early January, so they weren't even at home to use water. In addition, Baur also said his property didn't receive an inordinate amount of watering during the remainder of the nearly 3 1/2-month billing period. Only one-third of his two-acre parcel is irrigated during growing season, which doesn't really kick off until April.
Baur's saga began in mid-December when city workers were unable to read his meter because it was covered in snow. As a result, the city used their fallback plan, deriving estimates for January through March based upon known water consumption from October through December. Then in early April, when the city was finally able to read Baur's water meter once again, they determined that he had somehow used about 1.4 million gallons over the previous 3 1/2 months. His bill was then adjusted to $9,700.
Craig Frisbee, the city's water utility manager, acknowledges that Baur's usage from December to April was extraordinary. But he insists that when water goes through a meter, that's the official standard of judgment, and customers are obligated to pay. Inspections by both the city and a local plumber failed to find any water leaks in Baur's system.
The city then checked Baur's water meter, and determined it was operating at 72 percent capacity, which means he actually used more than 1.4 million gallons, according to Ogden Public Services Director George Benford. But it even left him scratching his head. "I've never heard of anybody using that much water," Benford said. "I can't imagine it. It's odd. That's the level you would use when you get to a manufacturing facility". Mysteriously, neither the city nor the Standard-Examiner addressed the possibility that the windfall bill might be attributable to a clerical error at the office, such as a decimal point inserted in the wrong place.
Nevertheless, although two public officials admit the situation is squirrelly, the city demanded that Baur pay the bill. When he appealed the bill and didn't pay immediately, they shut his water off. Even a direct appeal to Ogden Mayor Matthew "Boss" Godfrey didn't work. So he paid.
Then, to add insult to injury, Baur got his water bill for August. A whopping $1,700. However, this is related to a different issue; namely, a new rate structure implemented during the interim to discourage excessive water use. This new rate structure is now being revisited, with changes already suggested by "Boss" Godfrey himself. The city is already gearing up to pay $275,000 in rebates to approximately 500 customers erroneously overcharged as a result of the rate structure. More about Ogden's water rates HERE.
In regards to the original issue, the city is working with Baur to either re-bill the charges or issue a credit at $2.30 per 1,000 gallons. Typically, customers like Baur who have a three-quarter-inch meter but don't have secondary water are charged $7.70 per 1,000 gallons when they use more than 70,000 gallons. [Ed. Note: Secondary water is water suitable only for watering or irrigation; it is not used for cooking or drinking.]
Commentary: Ogden's water rate restructuring was actually commendable in intent. Not only was it in response to some temporary drought conditions, but the strong influx in population is straining existing water resources. But it obviously has some growing pains, as a number of people found themselves on the receiving end of windfall rate hikes.
But the city's response to Rick Baur has clearly been insensitive and inadequate. There is no logical way a single-family residential property owner can use 1.4 million gallons of water in a 3 1/2 month period. The city needs to determine whether or not there is a clerical or computational error in the bill.
Update: On October 10th, KSL reported that the city of Ogden has now eliminated the conservation surcharge that triggered so many excessively high water bills. They will be issuing about $320,000 dollars in refunds to more than 500 customers, including Baur's family. And Baur's share will be around $7,000.
But the city still claims that the 1.4 million gallons total is correct. "It's physically possible for that much water to go through his meter," John Patterson said. "In the particular location in our city, with the rocky soil, it just dissipated in."
But Baur maintains there's no way that happened and says a lack of communication with city leaders has him frustrated. "If they can show me how I used it, legitimately used it, I'd pay it. Well, I did pay it. I want it back," he said.