A homeowner issued a $1,000 water bill has discovered she has no recourse but to pay the massive bill.
“I feel alone, nobody to turn to,” said Brookes Wallace. “I’m one person fighting by myself. I’m very upset.”
'Nobody has any idea where I’m supposed to turn for help' - Brookes Wallace
Wallace’s monthly water bill for her Lacombe, Alta., bungalow usually ranges between $70 and $90, but in February 2013, she was billed $1,086.39, plus tax.
Wallace rents the bungalow to long-term tenants.
“It’s a joke. Two tenants can’t use that much water,” Wallace said.
Wallace complained to the City of Lacombe which agreed to remove the meter and have it tested.
Enough water to fill a swimming pool
When the city said the meter was found to be accurate, Wallace paid a professional plumber $250 to test the home for leaks.
He found none.
In his report Brian Brown said he believed the meter’s reading was incorrect, either because of a fault with the meter itself or with its remote counter.
Brown estimated the amount of water shown on Wallace’s bill was enough to fill a swimming pool, and that for the reading to be accurate all the cold water taps in the house would have to have been running fully-open, 24 hours a day for 14 days.
But the City of Lacombe disputes the plumber’s report, saying he inspected the house for leaks 2 ½ months after the giant bill.
Matthew Goudy, infrastructure services director for Lacombe, also says bills of this size aren’t uncommon.
The city reads water meters once every two months, and estimates the consumption for the months in between, he said.
That means the water was actually used over 60 days and that it’s entirely plausible it was caused by a running toilet or leaky tap, Goudy said.
City stands by billed amount
Nevertheless, the city sent Wallace’s meter for testing again, this time to the manufacturer. It determined the meter was actually recording too little water.
“Once we had those two tests there was no way to rationalize anything other than the fact the water had gone through the meter and she had used it,” Goudy said.
Wallace appealed to the city as well as her councillors and the mayor trying to get an independent ruling.
“Nobody has any idea where I’m supposed to turn for help,” Wallace said.
Wallace was given some hope, after a CBC Go Public story about a Lacombe-area senior.
Sid Morris had a similar dispute over a natural gas bill. His gas meter was also declared accurate and he was threatened with being cut off if he didn’t pay.
Morris and CBC News were told no government agency had the authority to intervene.
But an employee with Measurement Canada saw the story.
Measurement Canada has a legislated mandate to approve, regulate and inspect meters, and investigate consumer complaints, although this role is not widely advertised.
The federal agency tested Morris’s gas meter and found it to be faulty. His massive bill was reversed.
Water meters excluded from federal legislation
However Wallace’s hopes were dashed when she discovered water meters are specifically exempt from the federal Weights and Measures Regulations, along with other measuring devices, including parking meters, clocks, and coin-operated scales for weighing people.
“It was my last straw,” Wallace said. “My last hope.”
This wasn’t supposed to be the case.
In 2004, after a lengthy consultation with the water industry and municipalities, senior Measurement Canada managers agreed the agency should approve all meter types for use, require periodic testing of meters, and be responsible for investigating consumer complaints.
But according to Industry Canada, the required legislation was never passed by the Paul Martin government or, since 2006, the Harper government.
“I think it’s reprehensible,” said Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan.
“What’s the point of wasting time engaging people and asking for their advice … coming out with these reports, and not acting on them?” Duncan said.
Duncan believes Industry Canada should start regulating and inspecting water meters right away.
However, a spokesperson for Minister of Industry James Moore indicated that is not likely to happen.
Utilities contacted by Go Public said they don’t inspect water meters unless they get an unusual reading.
EPCOR, Edmonton’s water utility, will test a meter’s accuracy if a customer requests it.
The customer is charged $80 if EPCOR finds the meter to be accurate within the limits it sets.