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Alabama couple receives an extraordinarily high water bill


Water leaks at home waste nearly a trillion gallons of water each year in the U.S. They can also run up huge water bills. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports on one such bill and why the tech to prevent it is not commonplace.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Sometimes a leak is pretty obvious, like the dripping shower in the townhouse Meghan Taylor rented near Birmingham. She hired a plumber to fix it last year. Other times it's more ominous, like when the same plumber noticed the home's water meter spinning like a pinwheel.

MEGHAN TAYLOR: He just saw the water meter, like, circling itself like the - you could actually see the needle on it going round and round and round.

BISAHA: Turns out Meghan Taylor and her husband, Will, had another way worse leak on their hands. They lost enough water to more than fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. They suspect it went into a storm drain, so they never noticed it. They called their water provider, Birmingham Water Works, and were told nothing could be done until after the bill arrived.

M TAYLOR: So we got this bill.

BISAHA: This bill right in front of you.

M TAYLOR: This...

BISAHA: It's a bad day...

M TAYLOR: I'm reading the bill.

BISAHA: ...A very bad day.

M TAYLOR: It says total account balance, $19,526.57.

BISAHA: Twenty-thousand dollars - a huge setback for their dreams of owning their own home. After weeks of phone calls and emails, Birmingham Water Works agreed to cut the bill down to about $4,000.

Which is still a lot of money.

WILL TAYLOR: It's a lot of money.

M TAYLOR: It's still a lot of money.

W TAYLOR: It is still a lot of money.

BISAHA: Now, Will does think this was fair. After all, the leak was on their side of the property line. But he says utilities should have had some way to detect the leak way before it got to this point.

W TAYLOR: If there was some sort of smart reader in place that could tell you, hey, Will, you're using 10 times more water this month than you were last month. Is everything OK? Something like that could have prevented this way before 800,000 gallons of water had gone down the drain.

BISAHA: And that thing already exists - smart water meters. These meters automatically track and transmit how much water a home uses, and water experts say that could have helped here. Tech like that is common for power companies to track electricity. But for water, the norm is still to have a worker physically go to each house once a month and read the water meter box.

ALLEN BERTHOLD: Water is, I don't know, let's just say 10 years behind electricity. And so...

BISAHA: Allen Berthold is with the Texas Water Resources Institute. He says unlike an electric meter, water meters are more complicated to keep running properly.

BERTHOLD: When you have a water meter, it's underground. It's battery powered, and you have to have a strong enough battery to be able to get the signal out.

BISAHA: Really, this doesn't make smart meters impossible. They just come with a steep upfront cost. Lots of big utilities like New York City made the shift years ago, while others like New Orleans are doing it right now. But the country's many smaller water providers have been slow to switch over. Birmingham Water Works is still in the early planning phases, discussing a move to smart meters. As for Meghan and Will Taylor, despite the nearly $4,000 water bill setback, they were recently able to buy a beautiful new home surrounded by big trees.

M TAYLOR: And it has a septic tank, which we're so thrilled.

BISAHA: Septic tank over sewage fees. While they still get their water from Birmingham Water Works, they'd rather give the utility as little money as possible.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA'S "5:21") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stephan Bisaha
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