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Water rates have ratepayers boiling mad

By: monica mendoza
July 5, 2013 Updated: July 5, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Down at the Colorado Springs Utilities office the phone is ringing off the hook with complaints about high water rates.

About 22 percent of Colorado Springs residents opened their June water bills to find they had crested the threshold that triggers higher water rates. There's no doubt that many ratepayers have reached the boiling point.

"We can't say we had a crystal ball but we had expected more customers would be concerned about their water use as the days became hotter and drier," said Patrice Lehermeier, a spokeswoman for Colorado Springs Utilities.

It's not the first time Colorado Springs has enacted summer lawn watering restrictions. But it is the first time higher rates kick in once customers use more than 2,000 cubic feet of water per month. Residents that use less than 1,999 cubic feet of water, or 14,953 gallons, pay $.0584 per cubic foot and will see a bill of about $103. Those who use 2,500 cubic feet of water per month, or 18,700 gallons, pay a rate of $.0885 per cubic foot plus a water surcharge of $.0885 per cubic foot and see a bill of about $192.

"It's an unfair limit," said Colorado Springs resident William Gonzales. "We put a lot of money over the years into taking care of our yards and houses."

His sentiment was echoed by more than the 500 people who called the utilities office in June to complain about the rates.

Gonzales, whose water bill went from $125 to $187, said the city should consider increasing the threshold past 2,000 cubic feet before charging more.

"We need to boost it up," he said. "Come on, give us some water."

All of the citizen comments and concerns will be considered in a 2014 plan, should the city need to restrict water use, Lehermeier said.

"We are trying to make the best of a pretty challenging situation," she said.

The situation is drought, said Gary Bostrom, utilities chief water services officer. And as of this week, the city is out of runoff from this past winter's snowpack. That means the only way to keep water in the city's reservoirs is not to use it, he said.

The state has been in drought before, Bostrom said. But what caught cities off guard were back-to-back drought years. There was a moment earlier in the winter when he would have pushed for one-day a week watering restrictions. Then it snowed.

The city's reservoirs are about 55 percent full. From 1970 to 2011, those reservoirs were 74 percent full. That made the city nervous, Bostrom said.

"We've got to look at next year," he said. "Experts in this area, say the drought is persisting. We have to plan for the worst case."

If the city wanted to build up those water reservoirs, it had to get people to use less water, Bostrom said. The best incentive to do that is money. So for the first time, the city council approved hiking up the water rates, for every cubic foot used over 2,000 cubic feet per month.

It's not popular, but it is working, Bostrom said. The city expects to meet its goal of using 30 percent less water than last year.

"It's not an easy decision to make," he said. "I want to make sure there is water for drinking."

Recent rain showers have some residents wondering why the city couldn't ease up on the watering restrictions - maybe limit lawn watering to three days a week. Bostrom said the city relies on snowpack, not rainfall, to fill its reservoirs.

Rain does help residents use less water, he said, but there hasn't been enough. In June, precipitation was .60 inches, or 24 percent less than normal. So far this year, precipitation has been 3.33 inches, or 44 percent less than normal, which is about 7.4 inches.

"If we went to three days we would be back in the hole and have a hard time getting out," Bostrom said.

The summer's twice-a-week watering restrictions have caused anxiety among homeowners across the city, no matter what size yard they have. People have reported dying grass, trees and shrubs - investments worth thousands of dollars and hours of tender loving care.

Colorado Springs resident Marylou Vaughn has cried herself to sleep recently thinking about the 14 trees she will have removed from her front yard this weekend. They are older trees, but the water restrictions this year did them in, she said. She's heartbroken. She planted and cared for the trees with her husband. But now she is planning a new landscape design, one that requires less water.

"Things change," she said. "We have always tried to do the most logical and practical thing and that is what I am doing now."

Bostrom expects the calls about water rates to intensify as the temperatures rise for the rest of the summer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service is predicting above-average temperatures and below average precipitation for the rest of the summer.

But he said utilities set the watering restrictions so that lawns would not die but remain dormant.

Dormant lawns look brown, even straw like, said Catherine Moravec, utilities conservation specialist. She's been fielding calls on how to tell the difference between dormant grass and dead grass.

"Grab a fistful of the brown grass," she said. "If you feel resistance - like if you are pulling hair - that means it's dormant."

If the grass comes out easily, it's dead.

"The great thing is that Kentucky Blue Grass - which is what most people have - is that it has the ability to be dormant, to be in a resting state, and then come back."

Moravec said residents should continue to water the brown grass, on the two-day-a-week watering schedule, and the dormant grass might surprise them with a green shade come September.

"The really important thing to survive through dormancy is not shooting for emerald green," she said. "Keep watering regularly. That keeps the crown and the root hydrated. That gives it the ability to survive."

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