San Jose Water Customers Voice Frustrations over Billing Spikes

When Brian Jones opened up his water bill last September, he knew something was wrong. The San Jose resident, who typically pays around $200 per bi-monthly cycle, was charged nearly $1,700 for a reported use of 3,000 gallons a day in his Almaden Valley home—and with no conceivable cause.

To put that number into perspective, the average American uses about 88 gallons per day, or 14 centum cubic feet of water per month (expressed in “ccfs” on the bill, the industry-standard designation). Jones, who lives with three other adults, was billed for using 236 ccfs within the months of July and August—up to 10 times what his household uses on a regular basis, enough to fill a dozen backyard swimming pools.

Jones immediately complained to the San Jose Water Co., an investor-owned utility that serves more than 1 million people in Silicon Valley and has a reputation for questionable billing practices. A field worker from the water retailer then checked his home for leaks and, finding none, extracted his water meter to test its accuracy in the company’s shop.

When results showed that his meter was reading correctly, the company concluded that Jones had somehow used the reported amount. Jones, who is unemployed and couldn’t afford to pay the full charge, tried to the settle the dispute with a good faith payment of $250, which based on past usage would be considered a high bill for his household.

Four months later, when the water company shut his water off, he had no choice but to cough up the remainder of that bill, causing him to rack up his credit card debt and take on additional interest fees each month.

As Jones recounts the ordeal, his voice stiffens.

“It is a genuine hardship,” he says.

Brian and Aimee Jones with their $1,696 water bill from September 2017 in their San Jose home. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Brian and Aimee Jones with their $1,696 water bill from September 2017 in their San Jose home. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Other San Jose Water customers have complained about drastic spikes in their water bill. Rita Benton, a Saratoga resident and leader of activist group WRATES—short for Water Rate Advocates for Transparency, Equity and Sustainability—says this is a common issue in the company’s domain.

San Jose Water has over 240,000 connections throughout Silicon Valley, making it the largest water retailer in the region.

Toward the end of the last year, Benton and WRATES member Bill Sherman began noticing several hundreds of posts on the social network Nextdoor, which connects members within a certain neighborhood, about people with unusually high water bills.

About 40 of the 377 posts Sherman tracked down in the Almaden Valley group recount a near identical story to Jones’, wherein households that typically use 20 to 30 ccfs per billing period were being charged for using well over 100 ccfs within the same time frame.

“There are too many of these to be coincidence,” Sherman says.

Malcolm Bordelon—a San Jose Water customer, former publisher of the Silicon Valley Business Journal and former San Jose Sharks exec—lives a mile away from Jones in the Graystone neighborhood in Almaden. In January 2016, Bordelon was billed $1,219.13 for a water usage of 107 ccfs. That’s nearly a 500 percent increase from the 18 ccfs that he and his wife used during the same period a year prior.

“It’s simply not feasible that we used that volume of water,” Bordelon says.

A field inspection of his home and a water meter test were conducted at his request. However, there were no leaks and his meter tested accurate, leaving Bordelon with no explanation as to why this particular bill was so high.

In a letter responding to Bordelon’s complaint, San Jose Water Customer Service Superintendent Kristine Jordan describes his case as “an unexplained escalation in water usage.” She adds that the company has “no responsibility beyond the meter” and concludes that “the bill is an accurate reflection of water used at the property.”

In April 2016, Bordelon filed a formal complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)—the government agency tasked with regulating the state’s private water companies—who ruled in favor of San Jose Water.

“The formal complaints don’t go anywhere,” Benton says. “The CPUC does what they usually do and sides with the water utility.”

Benton isn’t the first to question the commission’s integrity. Many people have criticized the CPUC for being too cozy with the top brass at the utility companies like San Jose Water, whose annual petitions to bump up profit are almost always approved by the state. The CPUC has allowed the company to increase its rates by an average of 20 percent a year since 2013.

This month, Benton emailed the CPUC’s Water Division, urging its members to investigate the issue of erroneously high water usage.

“They told me that this isn’t in their jurisdiction,” Benton says. “If the Water Division can’t deal with it, who deals with it?”

When the final outcome of an appeals process hinges on regulators who seem to be asleep at the wheel, customers are often left with no choice but to pay up.

San Jose Water gave Bordelon a “one-time courtesy adjustment” of $562.67 to offset drought surcharges—penalty charges for customers who exceed drought usage allocations set by the company—but offered no recourse for the rest of the bill.

“It feels futile,” he says. “You don’t know what you can do. I can’t win because there’s no way to prove, other than logic, that I didn’t use this volume of water.”

William Carlson, another San Jose Water customer who lives in the Graystone area, also filed a formal complaint with the CPUC after receiving a $4,711.20 bill for using 366 ccfs in September 2016.

“The prior billing was $313.72 for 38 ccfs, so something was seriously wrong,” Carlson tells San Jose Inside.

Despite the precedent set in Bordelon’s case, Carlson remains hopeful that the commission will rule in his favor later this month. “My guess is that we have a 50-50 chance of prevailing,” he says.

Meanwhile, the cause of these sudden upticks remains unclear. In all three of the cases mentioned, meters reported normal levels of water usage in billing periods directly before and after the spike, despite any notable changes in a household’s lifestyle during that time.

“The underlying mystery is the fact that the meter is running normally, it reports a high number, and then it goes back to reporting normally,” Jones says.

Residents speculate that the high meter readings could be caused by external factors, like air pressure or debris buildup in their water lines. However, they have yet to come across any concrete data that proves either possibility could result in enormous meter readings.

“There are no causes that I can offer you,” San Jose Water spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann says. “If the meter is performing accurately, then the water is being used on the customer’s side somewhere.”

Dina Thatcher—the company’s meter shop supervisor—says about five to six people request meter tests each month as a result of irregularly high readings on their bill. Since San Jose Water performs tests for other water utilities throughout the state, some of these complaints come from several hundred miles away.

Thatcher says that in the past five years, only one of these tests showed that a meter had over-read the amount of water a customer used.

“Normally, a water meter doesn’t run faster,” says Thatcher, who explains that it’s far more common for a worn meter to slow down and under-read water use.

Inside the meter shop on Bascom Avenue, a technician places a water meter into a test bench built by MARS Company—an industry standard. The meter is manufactured by Neptune Technology Group, whose T-10 model is used in almost all of San Jose Water’s residential connections. In addition, all of the shop’s equipment complies with the American Water Works Association’s testing standards, Thatcher says.

Everything in the room looks pristine and logical—exactly what one would expect from one of the most expensive water retailers in the state. Yet, customers remain weary of the company’s commitment to its own machines and numbers.

“It’s my word against the meter,” Bordelon says.

And while machines say one thing, the people of San Jose tell quite a different story. Unlike internet and energy providers, a person’s water utility is predetermined by the location of their home. This means Bordelon and others could be hit with another inexplicable bill in the future.

“I’m very concerned,” Jones says. “I’m paranoid that this could happen again because we never found a root cause.”

A Neptune T-10 water meter gets placed into a test bench at San Jose Water’s meter shop on Bascom Avenue. Almost all of the company’s residential customers have this type of meter. (Photo by Camille Miller)

A Neptune T-10 water meter gets placed into a test bench at San Jose Water’s meter shop on Bascom Avenue. Almost all of the company’s residential customers have this type of meter. (Photo by Camille Miller)

29 Comments

  1. This is about the greed of the water company and it’s time to put informational picket lines around the homes of SJWC executives.

  2. So they should look into what the water company was up to in that period of time, and what they did with the windfall dollars. Was it time for a CEO bonus? Were the meters hacked? Was a software patch applied? If it wasn’t the meter, it had to be the software. Did they even look at that?

    • Yes, disturbing that the NTF (no trouble found) automatically means the consumer’s complaint is invalid. What’s wrong with suing in small claims court?

    • For your reference, these meters are mechanical. They have no software or electronic components, unlike “smart” meters. As the water passes through it, an internal disc is turned tracking the water volumes. Hacking would not be possible. -Jayme Ackemann, San Jose Water

      • Thanks for chiming in here, Jayme. If the claim is that the meters are functioning normally then as you say, the only conclusion could be that the huge, almost unrealistic spikes are happening on the customer’s side. But then they claim they didn’t, indeed, couldn’t have used that much water. Beyond just testing for leaks and checking that the meter isn’t broken, isn’t there anything else that can be done to find out what might be wrong? Because hardline sticking with that position is intimating that the customer is either being less than truthful or doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Thoughts?

      • How is the meter information entered into the system for billing, manually? Could there have been an error or “glitch” in the billing system ie some additional % added to the usage?

  3. Take your bill and complaint to the Santa Clara County Water District. San Jose water adds only small amount. The big bill is what is forced on san jose water. Quit barking at the wrong tree.

  4. Absolutely disturbing!

    I had the exact same experience but on a less costly level. I too live in the south san jose area and was perplexed when my September 2017 bill was more than double any amount I’ve paid in the prior five years (I keep a running record of all my bills). The highest I paid in the prior two years was $230, yet my bill shot up to $580 for no apparent reason.

    I’ve had no discernible changes to my water usage and the same number of people living in my household. I had a representative come out from the water company and they couldn’t find any leaks. Still, despite my every effort, I was told I must have used the water because the meter was working properly. I reluctantly paid my bill because they threatened to turn off my service. My subsequent bill was $530, a little lower, but still almost twice my regular amount. There has to be a bigger story here and hundreds more customers like myself who just end up paying so our water doesn’t get shut off.

    Feeling soaked in San Jose.

  5. Who would have thought that San Jose Water would screw over their customers like this?! And is it a surprise to anyone that the CPUC is in SJW’s back pocket? San Jose Water Company is nothing but an extortionist and it’s time they get what they give. I am now aware of three individuals who have drilled backyard wells; they now pay nothing for their water! They do run it through purification but isn’t it beautiful that these three ex-customers get their water for free?!

    • Unfortunately there is no known way to purify “unknown chemicals” located in our Silicon Valley aquifers. I admire their rebellious stance, but putting their families and neighbors in danger of consuming aquafer water filled with cancerous and unsafe water included with the costs of maintaining these wells is mostly cost prohibitive (nothing’s free!) Hopefully they have installed adequate backflow devices on their water service main connection to protect against backflow of this contaminated water to their neighbors and our water system.
      Maybe taking the San Jose Water Company to court for charging illegally spiked bills is a better option.
      Just saying….

      • It appears that SJW can filter aquifer water and make it safe for consumption. I don’t see why these backyard well people cannot do the same. I imagine too that they drink and cook with bottled water… many people do that at present.

      • Use caution and have the water tested. Most of the SV is a Superfund site, especially in San Jose. The water company wells are drilled very deep and monitored by both local and federal authorities due to past contamination issues.

        • > The water company wells are drilled very deep and monitored by both local and federal authorities due to past contamination issues.

          Reed:

          Your advice seems very sensible.

          I’ll add an interesting detail to the past contamination story.

          I was told that the water under the former IBM plant site on Cottle Road was contaminated with “solvents”. IBM was ordered to “flush” the aquifer by pumping water from wells and dumping it into the bay, at a cost of many millions of dollars.

          After a number of years, environmental scolds complained that the water that IBM was dumping into the bay was “too pure” and was reducing the salinity of the bay, and therefore making the habitat of the bay “uncomfortable” for bay critters.

          If the environmental scolds say your water is “too pure”, it’s probably OK to drink. Still, getting it tested is never a bad idea.

  6. The water company needs some responsible oversight because there doesn’t seem to be anything or anyone stopping them from jacking up bills whenever they like. There’s no way for customers to disprove the water usage. What they’re doing is unethical and illegal.

  7. This is what’s wrong with a publicly held company, one owned by investors, that controls the access to a natural right of every human being: water. If the water user (or customer, as the company would call them) suspects there’s something wrong with the equipment and the company doesn’t agree, who wins? That’s especially true if the watchdog agency is impotent. So much for ‘free market’ when a profit-needy monopolist is in town.

    • > So much for ‘free market’ when a profit-needy monopolist is in town.

      ROBJ:

      It’s a “regulated public utility”.

      Don’t blame the free market. Blame incompetent, stupid regulators.

      • I just got off the phone with the Utilities Commission. They state that this water company is not in their jurisdiction and it is local government whom regulates them. Dam sounds like some Reddit hackers need to get this info ! #fightback

  8. Has anyone considered that someone with a water truck might be rolling up and stealing bulk water from ordinary homes?

  9. What?? The San Jose Water Company execs making over 6 figures, some 7 figures and still that’s not enough. Greed reins eternal with this company that everyone HAS to use. I would ask why is the San Jose Water Company an investor held company??

  10. The billing units are not cubic feet, they are CCF, one hundred cubic feet. The big bills show a jump of more than 100 CCF. Some billing errors result from misreading the meter or entering it wrong, but if that were the case it would be easy to prove by looking at the meter. Rob, water is a natural need, but it is not a natural right.

    • You’re right about the ccfs– thanks for catching that. I’ve updated the article accordingly.

  11. Regarding stealing water, a small tanker truck might hold 3000 gallons (24,000 pounds), which is 4 CCF. To get 100 CCF, it would have to fill up 6 days a week. Also, based on 3/4″ supply line, it would take about 2 hours to fill the truck.

    • Which just makes the customers’ argument that there’s no way they’d used that much water more believable.

  12. Someone could be stealing water overnight to water marijuana plants. Residents need to lock their front yard water faucets and check their meter readings before and after leaving home.

  13. What was the response of nbc channel 7 news investigates. There are enough instances we need investigators on the consumer side. Is it possible that they can vary or changes the water pressure enough to cause leaks in the yard which don’t show when the pressure has normalized ? We had a tree gassed by a pge crew when gas excaped during there repair in the street. Do they have pressure meters in the streets. Much of LOS Gatos area has 100 year old systems. Perhaps an anti trust suit is appropriate since SJW is for profit. Government should protect us just like stopping companies from merging we need to file to break up the monopoly of SJSW. Or we should be able to select water delivery from the company on East side San Jose or Folsom with lower rates

  14. We’re having the same problems with our water bills in San Diego, but our City water is managed by a public agency under the Mayor. Therefore, our local council members are pressuring the Public Utilities Department to find and fix the cause of these problems. In fact, many cities are having these same issues. I sent both of these articles to our local politicians:
    https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/Water-Meter-Retrofit-Problems-Discovered-475608693.html
    http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/03/01/water.bills.war/index.html

    Maybe this will help you too.

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