Mary Truman checks the water meter in the back corner of her Sonoita property after being billed for using 154,000 gallons of water.
Photo by Marion Vendituoli

When part-time Sonoita resident Mary Truman got a water bill for $2141 for the month of Nov. 2018, she was sure there had been some mistake. The meter reading indicated that she had used 154,430 gallons of water, even though the water had been turned off at her house since the previous May. In August 2018, a leak had been discovered, which was repaired, and at that time Truman turned the water off at the meter. According to Truman, the water shut off is located on the company’s side of the meter. Her average water bill during the past year had been between $35 and $55, with readings of zero gallons used for Sept. and Oct. when the water had been turned off at both the meter and at her house. 

Truman, like many residents of Los Encinos and Papago Springs, is on a public water system owned by the estate of E.H. (Buck) Lewis. Truman’s property is part of the south system of the water company, which services approximately 75 customers. Southwestern Utility Management (SUM) in Tucson provides service and billing for the Water Company, as well as for 31 other water companies in Arizona. 

When Truman contacted SUM, she was told that she would have to pay the bill, even though she had not had her water on during that time. “Whatever goes through the meter you have to pay for,” Truman said she was told. According to Truman, they suggested that perhaps someone had come on her property and had stolen the water. The meter, however, is in the back corner of Truman’s property, and it would have been difficult and unlikely that a large truck could access the meter or cross her property without being noticed. 

This is not the first time that Truman has had trouble with the water company. Her bill in Dec. 2014 was $2669. “I’ve now been charged almost $5000 when I wasn’t even here,” she said. 

In May 2017, she was charged $314 for 22,830 gallons, which was ten times her average amount of water usage, according to Truman. The company replaced her meter at that point, and the readings dropped down to zero for the rest of the summer. In January 2019, the readings spiked again, up to 12,900 gallons. Testing conducted by the AZ Corporation Commission, at Truman’s expense, showed the meter inexplicably reading below the allowable range, which should indicate that she was being undercharged. Once again, her meter was sent out for testing, it was found to be reading incorrectly, and was replaced in February. 

There was a further unintended consequence of Truman involving the AZ Corporation Commission. After looking at her water system, the Commission notified SUM that Truman had to, at her own expense, install a backflow preventer because she has a horse on the property. Properties with livestock are required to have this backflow preventer. She was given 30 days from April 9 to install and get the backflow preventer certified or her water would be shut off. “This is not punitive,” Paul Juhl, office manager for SUM, said. “This was initiated by the state.” 

Truman has no choice but to pay her bill or her water will be turned off by the company. In March, Truman went to the civil litigation division of the AZ Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division and was granted 12 months instead of the usual 6 months to pay her bill. She is still on the hook for the late fees. “It’s just so unfair. They don’t care. I am a nervous wreck. I’m so upset.” 

Truman is not the only customer to have trouble with the water company. In November of last year, Lou Ann Kirby, of Sonoita, received a visit from a representative of SUM who told her she had a leak in her water line and that she needed to hire a plumber to fix it. “He said I had used 86,200 gallons of water that month and had depleted the system. I hired a plumber who came with an assistant and worked most of the day trying to find the leak. They charged me $400 but did not find a leak, nor even a big enough wet spot to account for over 86,000 gallons of water,” she wrote. 

“The water company charged me $1,100 and refused to compromise. If I did not pay the full amount, they would shut off the water. If I would pay $400 by Dec. 1, they would let me sign a contract to pay the balance over 6 months at $124 a month. I didn’t have my meter tested as I would have to bear the cost if it tested okay. Based on Mary Truman’s experience, I didn’t want to risk it.” She also pointed out that the company is charging her interest, even though, according to Kirby, there was no mention of that in her contract with them. 

Although he could not discuss Truman’s specific case, Juhl said that high meter readings that occur in unoccupied homes typically are due to a leak in the system or someone leaving a hose or irrigation system running. “Once water travels through the meter, it’s the customer’s responsibility,” he said. “The Company strives to accurately bill customers for their usage and will utilize all available resources to investigate and validate disputed reads or inaccuracies as appropriate,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “If the reading is ultimately found to be valid, the company will extend a payment arrangement in an effort to minimize the financial impact to the customer.” 

Truman plans to file a formal complaint and go before a judge when she returns to the area next fall. This would be the first time in Juhl’s experience that a customer has asked for a formal hearing.