Jon Suder is accustomed to opening water bills as high as $750 during the hot summer months, as sprinklers work to keep his large landscaped yard on the city’s west side green.
But it came as a shock last year when he started receiving water bills for his home, on three-fourths of an acre, that had skyrocketed to $1,500 or $2,000.
“I had the water department folks, the yard guy, the subcontractor and the sprinkler guy out here,” Suder said. “They spent literally days and hours saying there’s no leak.
“We turned off the pool. We turned off everything. We couldn’t find any leaks.”
Suder was one of the top water users in Fort Worth last year, when 46 residents each used more than 1 million gallons of city water.
In fact, he was the 13th largest local water user.
It’s unknown who most of the top water users were, because they chose to keep their information confidential, which is allowed under Texas law.
In Suder’s case, records show he used 1.6 million gallons of water on his property last year.
“I really was using that much water, but I had no idea,” he said.
After months of work, a handyman finally determined that sprinkler heads on the back of the property were loose. And he had a number of unnecessary sprinkler heads.
So some of those sprinkler heads were capped off; others were tightened.
“It’s all fixed now, but it drove me nuts,” Suder said. “I was at City Hall, saying, ‘This is crazy. What’s going on?’ Everyone was sympathetic, but they couldn’t figure it out.”
In the end, the excessive watering ended up costing him about $10,000 and a beautiful red oak tree.
He said he did receive one bill adjustment from the city for around $1,000.
“Everyone: make sure your sprinkler heads are screwed in tight once a year,” Suder warned.
The Star-Telegram asked the city of Fort Worth for a list of the top residential water users in 2017.
Only five names were listed in the top 20 users. The others were blacked out, as allowed by law when residents ask for their identity to be shielded from the public.
State regulations require the tracking of water use. But they also let residents block their names and amount of water used from being publicly released.
Former state Rep. Bill Carter, a Fort Worth Republican who recently died, helped pass House Bill 859 in 1993 that lets residents ask in writing for government operated utilities to not release their personal information.
“Transparency is the key to accountability but some accommodation has to be made to protect an individual’s privacy,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “That balance is critical.
“When water is scarce, the need to encourage efficient water use may justify the listing of an individual’s name.”
The city of Fort Worth asks residents interested in shielding their identity to fill out a Request for Confidentiality Form, which is available online, and return it to the city.
Former Fort Worth City Councilman Jeff Davis, who used 1.4 million gallons of water at his home last year, was 21st on the list.
Davis said his water bill was around $60 last March and about $170 last April.
A new water meter was installed at his south side home that includes a 2.4 acre mostly landscaped yard and a pool. And his bill began growing, fluctuating between $600 and $1,300.
One month, it was around $3,000, he said.
“I’ve been to the water department several times trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “They’ve been very helpful. ... But I’m trying to figure it out. This is not normal.”
Davis said plumbers did a pressure test, which showed no significant leaks.
He reconfigured his sprinklers to try to reduce water usage and he’s looking at changing some landscaping to reduce water needs.
He also is asking the city to separate the bill for water used in the house from water used outside the house, trying to reduce the wastewater fee that goes hand-in-hand with water usage.
“It’s frustrating, but it needs to be dealt with,” Davis said. “I was rolling along for years with what was a good bill ... and now I’m trying to deal with (the higher ones).
“This is not realistic,” he said. “I will lower my bill to a reasonable amount in some fashion.”
Water Department officials offer a few tips on how to conserve water or address high bills.
▪ Know when to water the yard. Fort Worth has a twice a week schedule that calls for no watering on Mondays. Businesses may water on Tuesdays and Fridays. Residents with addresses that end in even numbers water Wednesdays and Saturdays and those with addresses that end in odd numbers water Thursdays and Sundays.
▪ To save water, officials suggest installing low-flow shower heads, taking 10-minute showers instead of baths, running washing machines and dishwashers only with full loads, turning off water while brushing teeth and installing faucet aerators to reduce water usage.
▪ And residents who find leaks or get an unexplained one-time high water bill can reach out to the city for bill adjustments. Those adjustments are limited to once in a 12-month period for leaks and once in a 24-month period for unexplained high water usage bills. Residents must submit applications for those adjustments within 60 days. Visit fortworthtexas.gov/water/high-bills for information.