Just months after splashing the names, street locations, bills and consumption habits of Santa Fe’s top water guzzlers across the pages of this alternative weekly last year, the city hit my residence with a $276 water bill for using 16,700 gallons in August 2014.
I had been remarkably negligent in stopping the leak, too, displaying precisely the type of disregard for water conservation that SFR regularly publishes in what many say constitutes public shaming.
My shame is this: Sometime that August, I noticed the front yard of my Placita de Oro residence dampening like a sponge. Water even bubbled up to the surface, an observation I mentally logged while jetting off one morning that summer instead of investigating the pool and telling my roommates about it. I can't remember how long it took me to ultimately report the dilemma. It certainly wasn't immediate, and I sensed no emergency about the situation. When we finally contacted the city, it was a Sunday, and we couldn't reach anyone. The private plumber was not cheap.
How much water could have I saved had I acted sooner? For perspective, that month alone, our residence guzzled 65 percent of the water that a single-family user in Santa Fe typically consumes in a year.
Readers sometimes question why SFR does this every year. Why embarrass people when leaks are mostly to blame? Sometimes it's even completely the city's fault.
Water is a community resource. Not a private one. Waste costs us all dearly. We hope you learn from what happened to me, and from what happened to these people, and that you hold officials accountable for their part in it.
Santa Fe's most recent Water Conservation and Drought Management Plan shows that single-family residential users make up 52 percent of the 3 billion gallons we consume annually from sensitive water sources like the Santa Fe River and Rio Grande. The report based on 2013 figures indicates 21 percent of the demand is classified as industrial or commercial.
And those single-family users—which include individuals and families who don't live in multi-unit complexes—are consuming more water than in the past. In 2007, the report calculates the average per-capita use for that category was as low as 63 gallons per day. Yet that figure for single-family residential use shot up to 70 gallons per capita daily in 2013. Commercial water use for gallons per capita daily, meanwhile, dropped 22 percent in a ten-year period ending that year.
Leaks persist as a problem. The city's "non-revenue" water category includes water lost to leaks. In 2013, that category made up 12 percent of Santa Fe's demand, a total volume of 347.12 million gallons.
Conservation attempts have worked in the long run, as consumption has dropped since the city purchased the water delivery system from PNM in the late '90s. Santa Fe continues to be a low water user compared to other similarly sized cities in the Southwest.
But SFR's lists, based on 2014 calendar year data from the city, show that sometimes, it's just the nuts and bolts of basic services, like shutting off a leak or getting the right classification on a bill, that need attention. The top residential user initially provided by the city for this list was not even a residence, but a Rufina Street business of more than 20 years owned by Rick and Rosemary Maestas, called, fittingly, the Water Man, which sells purified water.
And it turns out that many people land on the list because of the infamously faulty Firefly remote water meter readers that are still malfunctioning all over the city today.
The old devices, designed to provide fast, easy billing, in some cases recorded zero gallons used. The city sued Texas-based manufacturer Datamatic Ltd. over the product, but the company subsequently filed for bankruptcy.
In December, city councilors approved an $8.3 million, 10-year contract with Badger Meter Inc., a Wisconsin company, to install 34,000 meter-reading devices starting this March.
Public Utilities Department Director Nick Schiavo, however, says the installation of those meters won't really start until June. Larger customers like Santa Fe Public Schools will get meters before individual homes, he says.
In the meantime, the city is still attempting to recover costs from customers who weren't properly billed. Schiavo defends that practice of hitting residents across the city with a one-time monthly charge for years of water consumption by arguing that if one customer doesn't pay up, "then your neighbor is paying it."
Ratepayers, he explains, have to pay for the service, and the city does not make a profit from it.
But is that fair? Even if the city works out payment plans with customers?
Mary Lamy was listed as the third-highest water user in the city because she was hit with a one-time charge. "They didn't bill me for water for two years," she says. "Whose problem is that?"
#1 Quail Run Association
Old Pecos Trail
Gallons consumed: 22,359,700
Annual water bill: $281,915
There are two givens in compiling water-guzzler lists in Santa Fe. The first is that Quail Run Association tops the commercial users list. The second is that Quail Run officials decline to comment on its water use.
Use for the insular retirement community near the northeast edge of the city increased from 2013 by slightly more than 5 million gallons. That's the same amount of water that 198 average residential units in the city consume in a year.
City officials initially only furnished SFR with records on one of Quail Run's two water meters, an irrigation meter that logged 9.4 million gallons. But its compound meter used another 12.8 million gallons.
Following the publication of last year's water-guzzlers issue, SFR followed up with a more in-depth report on Quail Run's water use in which officials complained of unfair press coverage about an association with 103 landscaped acres, a nine-hole golf course, 265 residential units, an indoor pool and a restaurant.
And although members of the association said Quail Run officials wouldn't respond to their inquiries about reducing water consumption, Quail Run officials have been working with city officials behind the scenes to address its water use.
In 2013, they requested to be exempted from the city's restricted-use times to water during the summer between 10 am and 6 pm. City officials rejected the request and told the association it could contract with a hauler to use treated effluent water from the Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Unsurprisingly, usage recorded on Quail Run's irrigation meter spiked sharply as the weather grew warmer last year. The highest use for that meter came in July, records show, when Quail Run pumped 88,933 gallons out of the city's supply to irrigate its golf course and other outdoor areas.
City records state that the association did not receive a leak credit that year.
#2 La Fonda Hotel
Gallons consumed: 11,888,900
Annual water bill: $292,766
Jennifer Kimball, chairwoman of La Fonda's board of directors, sits in La Plazuela, the hotel's skylit restaurant, with a stack of papers in hand and a consultant named Peter Wurzburger at her side. The hotel's water use has ticked up from 2013, when it consumed 9.8 million gallons. There's a pitter-patter from a centerpiece water fountain, adding to the ambiance. I ask the waitress for coffee.
"But no water," Wurzburger jokes. Kimball declines breakfast. "I'm being grilled right now," she tells the waitress.
Her opening argument is succinct: Water use is down 21.5 percent per occupied room from 2012, while guest occupancy is up after the hotel's renovation.
Back in 2012, the hotel used 13.7 million gallons with 50,945 room nights, for an average of 270 gallons per occupied room, according to one of Kimball's documents. In 2014, the hotel clocked in 56,187 room nights and an average use of 212 gallons per occupied room.
She didn't include 2013 as a comparison because she says the renovation year isn't representative of its occupancy. And while the hotel saved on water consumption from the renovation, Kimball says she expects water use for the hotel to eventually plateau.
The hotel's 180 rooms are now retrofitted with low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads.
"Extra low-flow, actually," Wurzburger, project manager for the renovation, says of the 1.28-gallons-per-flush toilets.
Kimball hands over a copy of a photograph of a sign she says the nearby Institute of American Indian Arts posted on its building: "Public restrooms are at La Fonda Hotel," it reads. The public toilets that are some of the only facilities available for Plaza vistors also use more gallons per flush than the guest rooms, 1.6, says Wurzburger. The hotel also washes its laundry in-house.
Hotels have a financial incentive to conserve water because they pay less in water bills. But where does conservation clash with profits for Santa Fe's lodgers?
"We're in the service business," Kimball says. "When people come here, they want to be pampered. They want to be taken care of. They don't want to think about, '[Take] a 30-second shower.'"
#3 Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center
St. Michael's Drive
Gallons consumed: 10,592,300
Annual water bill: $272,574
The 2014 water use for Northern New Mexico's largest hospital climbed 3.4 million gallons from the previous year—enough water to supply more than 130 average Santa Fe households. The increased use also throttled the hospital from No. 8 to No. 3 on this list.
But the hospital's water bills might not really be representative of its use. Spokesman Arturo Delgado says the hospital has possessed water rights on a well since 1984 and only taps into the city water system "as a backup during maintenance and repair activities."
Indeed, with the city's data, Santa Fe's hospital doesn't rank among the industry's greediest guzzlers. Christus St. Vincent's daily average water use per bed is almost a third of the average daily use per bed for hospitals listed in the US Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Portfolio Manager.
In 2012, the agency pegged the average use for 960 hospitals listed in the database at 360 gallons per bed per day. With 268 beds, Christus St. Vincent used an average of 108 gallons per bed per day in 2014. Hospital officials did not immediately provide SFR with data about how much well water is not counted in those figures, however.
Nationally, hospitals have been slow to catch up to water conservation efforts, which can clash with patient-safety regulations.
Delgado says the hospital uses water for domestic use such as plumbing fixtures, for its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system and for its cleaning, sterilization and kitchen work.
#4 Inn at Loretto
Old Santa Fe Trail
Gallons consumed: 8,012,500
Annual water bill: $132,592
This hotel's 2014 consumption is equal to the annual water use of 313 average households in Santa Fe.
But the Inn at Loretto reduced its water consumption in 2014 from the previous year. How much? By the same amount of water that 10 average households in Santa Fe consume in a year.
The cost savings are apparent too. With the reduced consumption, the hotel paid $18,547 less in water bills in 2014 from the previous year.
The hotel reduced its 2014 consumption from 2013 by 262,400 gallons. General manager Tom McCann writes in a statement to SFR that he's asked the hotel's employees to "think of new and creative methods of water conservation beyond the dedicated measures we've always implemented."
"We will be incentivizing them to think creatively and implement water-saving tactics, which will be tied to their goals and objectives," he says of the hotel's leadership team that includes the spa director, the chief engineer, the food and beverage director, the controller and human resources as well as McCann.
As a Green Key-certified hotel, Loretto converted all of its water fixtures to savings devices that include faucet aerators, low-flow toilets and water-efficient showerheads.
Like at La Fonda, this 136-room boutique hotel's bottom line depends on its luxurious offerings. It operates the Living Room Bar, the Luminaria Restaurant & Patio, a pool and the Southwestern-inspired Spa at Loretto, with its six treatment rooms.
But the hotel is also trying to shift its guests' water consumption habits, too. One unique conservation incentive the Inn at Loretto implemented last year is a program that gives guests a $5 credit for every day they bypass room service.
#5 St. John's College
Camino de Cruz Blanca
Gallons consumed: 7,655,000
Annual water bill: $156,920
This private liberal arts college reduced its 2014 consumption from the previous year by more than 1 million gallons and dropped one notch on this list. That's a 12 percent reduction, in the range of the savings goal of between 10 and 20 percent that spokesman Gabe Gomez told SFR last year an outside organization had set for the college, where undergraduate tuition is $47,176 annually.
The 250-acre campus, tucked in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, has 46 buildings with 313 students living on campus, Gomez says. That means St. John's used roughly 24,456 gallons annually per student—just under what the drought management plans identifies as Santa Fe's average single-family household per-capita use of 70 gallons per day.
Some of the usage is attributed to the turf on Sun Mountain Field, which the college leases to Santa Fe Prep, taking root last spring. Gomez says officials installed a "smart controller" to irrigate the field. It turns off and notes leaks automatically, he says. The school has also harvested roughly 40,000 gallons of rainwater and uses drip irrigation throughout its landscape, he adds.
"The buildings and grounds folks have been tasked with locating leaks as fast as possible and isolating them quickly," Gomez says.
#1 Jonathan Kellerman
Gallons consumed: 478,400
Annual water bill: $9,983
The crime-writing couple Jonathan and Faye Kellerman can't completely solve the mystery behind water bills they describe as "baffling."
"We're absolutely appalled to learn about this, as we've always been extremely water use-conscious," Jonathan Kellerman writes to SFR, "and if you take the time to look at the property, you'll see that we've planted it with drought-friendly vegetation, including native grasses, chamiso, as well as wildflowers that require no added water."
Much of the 6-acre property consists of arroyo and canyon, he writes, with about an acre of flat surface that's hardscaped with stone pathways, rocks and gravel. No water-guzzling vegetation like grass, roses or fruit trees. No fountain. No pool. The irrigation that is in place is low-volume drip irrigation.
The Wall Street Journal profiled the property that the county now values around $978,900. The 2012 story called it a "crime writer's retreat." The couple, the paper reported, bought the 4,300-square-foot main home in 2000 and "kept adding on" buildings, including a $350,000 casita in 2004. In 2008, they bought a neighboring 5,500-square-foot home and 700-square-foot guest house for $1.7 million.
Records show the home's highest consumption came in August, when the city billed the Kellermans $3,272.86. Public records state the city reimbursed the couple for a leak credit. Minus four months of high water use, the couple's average monthly water bill was $215.
The monthly water bills have been a "constant source of puzzlement," writes Kellerman. He recalls instances where deer chewed through some lines, causing leaks. But otherwise, Kellerman raises a familiar theme for Santa Feans, especially the top water users: improper billing.
"Once, after receiving a particularly baffling bill, we investigated and learned that the alleged meter reader wasn't actually reading the meter," he writes, "but somehow coming up with numbers based on an estimate system of his/her invention."
#2 Andrew and Elizabeth Orosco
Gallons consumed: 473,700
Annual water bill: $9,977
The Oroscos' inclusion on this list is a result of a faulty meter read. They did not actually use 473,700 gallons or pay $9,977. But that's what the city's records state.
Public records show that in the first three months of 2014, the city billed the couple the same rate: $22.34.
The city had been billing the Oroscos the same rate since 2010, say officials with the utility billing division. Andrew Orosco says in an interview in front of his home that his account had been set up on automatic pay.
But in April 2014, records show, the city hit the couple with an $8,733.95 water bill. That's because a faulty Firefly meter had been under-reading the home's water use since 2010, and the city wanted the Oroscos to pay for water use during that period—even though the city failed to charge them during that time.
City officials adjusted the Oroscos' bill to $2,292 because the original figure was tied to a tiered water rate system that punishes high users in a given month. City officials say they let a customer pay late-billed charges over the same time period that bills were incorrect—in this case, four years. After February, the city began charging the home varying rates, with a monthly average of $130.75.
Although the higher bills are still not easy to absorb, it's better than the alternative.
"They hit us all at once," Andrew Orosco says. "I've got babies, you know? I've got to keep the water on."
#3 Mary Lamy
Gallons consumed: 465,700
Annual water bill: $10,526
Mary Lamy also says she's a victim of incorrect bills. Public records show that in March 2014, the city slapped her with a charge for $10,173.
And we bet the Oroscos can guess what the city billed the property valued at $756,210 in February. The magic number: $22.34
"They didn't bill me for water for two years," Lamy says.
Not counting March, Lamy's average monthly water bill in 2014 at her home on Santa Fe's historic east side was $30.09.
"I just sucked it up, wrote the check," she says, noting she paid about $2,000 after a rate adjustment.
Lamy lists a Hygiene, Colo., post office box for her address in the Santa Fe County Assessor's database. In the small Colorado town, she serves as the president of an acequia association and says that years of being a farmer have made her sensitive to water issues.
"I'm not some easterner that can't get it. I'm a westerner, and I get it."
#4 Susan Black
Bishop's Lodge Road
Gallons consumed: 455,700
Annual water bill: $506.04
Santa Fe's water utility division might have another magic number: $41.67.
That's what the city says it billed this home all twelve months of 2014. The records also show that the city issued the account a credit that year.
And Black is apparently not even be the current owner of the home. Although her name was listed in records provided by the city utility billing office, Santa Fe County property records list James and Judy Contino as the current owners of the propery under a trusteeship. The two state in county records that they live in Parkridge, Ill.
Reached by phone, James says, "There's something wrong with the meter there."
Contino, the second person interviewed for this story who threatened to sue the newspaper if his name appeared, says he believes it's unfair that he is included on this list.
"It's a mistake, and the city is addressing it," he says. It also appears the data provided to SFR doesn't reflect a bill for the nearly half-million gallons of water allegedly used.
#5 Daniel and Marian Knowles
Gallons consumed: 424,500
Annual water bill: $9,397
This home's 2014 water bills are all over the chart.
The city charged the Knowleses between $100 and $110 the first four months of the year, according to public records. Then water bills shot up in the summer. In August, the city charged the home $3,435, a high for 2014. Records state the city did not issue a leak credit to the owners.
County records list Marian Knowles as the owner of the property, valued at $2.7 million. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she founded a marketing and advertising agency called Off Duty Chef, Inc., which connects chefs with event planners.
The steep driveway at the Hillside Ave. home is blocked by a gate. Knowles tells SFR in a brief interview that she can't comment without the information in front of her.
SFR sent Knowles her water bills last week. She did not get back to us before press time. Aerial photos appear to show a swimming pool and green turf area.
The biggest lessons that came out of SFR’s 2014 water guzzlers list:
Check your bills—especially if your account is set up on auto-pay—every month. Repeat figures could mean you’ve got a faulty meter reader. The city might attempt to recoup costs for the water use for which it failed to bill you. If the city hits you with a one-time monthly charge for previous water use, you might want to negotiate a payment plan. City officials say they allow users to repay unrecovered costs in the same amount of time it took customers to actually consume the water. And make sure you don’t get billed at the Tier 2 rate during a collection for previous consumption. Santa Fe operates a tiered billing system that punishes higher water use, but in most cases you shouldn’t have to pay this rate if a faulty meter is in play. Fix leaky faucets and check outdoor connections on irrigation systems. Survey the property for wet spots that shouldn’t be wet. If you find a leak, the city will reimburse you for the accidental water use once annually, if you can prove you consumed less water for the same month in the previous year. Get past-use info from public records custodian Bernadette Romero at firstname.lastname@example.org. Give her all the information you have—like the property address, owner name and, if possible, account number. Help your neighbor. If you see water running down the street or other waste, call the city hotline at 955-4222.