When we first asked for the data for this year’s top 10 water guzzlers story, the city stalled, and then stalled some more, in fulfilling the records request. SFR typically compiles an annual report based on public utility data from Santa Fe as a way to keep the conversation about water use in the desert Southwest at the top of our minds. This year, we’re doing so with a degree of trepidation.

As thousands of city water customers know, Santa Fe's utility billing system has long had a reputation for not working well, but this year residents reached a new level of doubt. The launch of a new metering system last year suffered more than a few hiccups. Water bills ran late or failed to appear altogether, and when they did eventually arrive, they seemed to double-bill customers, who had to read past the printed due date to see that new bills were really catching up on those missed billing cycles and weren't due right away.

Public Utilities Director Nick Schiavo is adamant that the problem is not the meters themselves, nor is there anything wrong with the bills or with the billing process.

"It's a good metering system," Schiavo says. But he concedes, "I don't think we could have done a worse job on implementation."

Recent weeks have seen the department apparently regain some control over reliability, but water users continue to express mistrust in bills after months of frustrations with the department. Santa Feans describe astronomical leaps in their bills, usage numbers that spiked from thousands to tens of thousands of gallons, and calls and concerns that went unanswered and unaddressed for weeks.

Several people who contacted SFR with issues early this year now say their problems have been solved, and their bills drifted back toward only a little above the numbers they saw last year. Some know Schiavo by name and say that when their calls finally reached him, they started getting information that made sense. But the fight leaves a bitter taste, and those high bills hit a nerve when you see the city looking at using a surplus in the water fund to close the deficit in the general operating fund.

Installers began replacing the existing water metering system with Badger meters last summer.
Installers began replacing the existing water metering system with Badger meters last summer. | Elizabeth Miller

Perhaps it's fortunate, then, that what seems to lie on the horizon for Santa Fe customers is an unprecedented level of information about their consumption and patterns when it comes to water use. The new Badger meters measures down to the quarter-gallon—increments small enough to register that middle-of-the-night toilet flush. And software connected to a website is expected to allow customers throughout the city to soon track their use and set up alerts to let them know when they're crossing from tier one to tier two pricing, a threshold that triggers a threefold rate increase from $6.06 to $21.72 per 1,000 gallons for residential meters. Some of this winter's billing snafus came when the city combined multiple months of use into a single bill and charged water in the second tier even though a customer's use per 30 days hadn't exceeded the limit. The city adjusted individual bills down to tier one pricing when customers brought it to their attention, and Schiavo says they set up a system for catching those who accidentally roll into that second tier before bills are mailed.

The user tracking part of the billing system won't be ready for prime time for several more months, and meters are still being installed on residential accounts, with commercial accounts slated to begin in May. Meanwhile, the city is rolling out a pilot program for 200 to 300 accounts and is currently seeking participants who want to take that online data system for a test-drive (email naschiavo@ci.santa-fe.nm.us to enroll).

Yet the meters are already helping the city keep a better eye on recurring issues. Each morning now, Schiavo can start the day by scrolling through a computer-generated list of people whose meters have been running nonstop for more than 24 hours. A conversation with this reporter is delayed in starting while he places a call to just one of those people. It's a slow leak, 4 gallons an hour or so, but enough that the next bill could sting. The city can even pre-emptively shut off a customer's water supply while they send someone out to investigate the leak.

The 28,000 new meters installed, Schiavo says, "are working very well, and I have not found a new meter that is working inaccurately."

But it's early. The Badgers are replacing Firefly devices, a decade-old system that started showing problems within four years of installation; more than half of them have since ceased to send the radio-signal readings that they were installed to produce.

And the city is already struggling to recover from a bad first impression after an error-prone rollout. To demonstrate the accuracy of their readings and the water use data they produce, Schiavo pulls up this reporter's water consumption data. A new meter was installed for my apartment in November, and sure enough, I can see detail right down to the tap running to refill the cats' water bowl when the pet sitter visited while I was out of town for the holidays.

Your meter isn't broken, and your bill isn't wrong, Schiavo tells me—though I didn't see a bill in January, and the bill due in March was double my usual amount. If your bill has gone up, he frequently repeats to customers, it's likely because the reading is more accurate than it previously was. Firefly devices, which theoretically read the sweep of the meter's hand and sent water use information by radio transmission so meter readers didn't have to leave their trucks, often under-read the usage, and that also contributed to the spike in some residents' bills.

City Public Utilities Director Nick Schiavo
City Public Utilities Director Nick Schiavo | Anson Stevens-Bollen

For several thousand accounts, though, the problem was human error at the city's utility department. When new meters were put in place, the installer photographed the old meter, the new meter, and the house, matching those photos with the new serial numbers. Those numbers then had to be manually entered with the account number on file with the city in its billing system and double-checked with the photos.

"That's where something went sideways for about 3,000 accounts," Schiavo says. The new numbers weren't updated in the billing system, so for those accounts, instead of having actual water use data to refer to, bills went out based on estimates, rather than actual readings.

If the city had used an Excel macro for the task, instead of a manual approach, Schiavo says he later learned, it would have taken about 6 to 10 seconds per account instead of 6 to 10 minutes. Given that slowdown, Schiavo says an employee no longer with the public utilities department decided to delay billing. The result was as many calls demanding to know where a bill was as calls on the double bills that followed, as the department attempted to right the ship. Had he known how big the mess would grow, Schiavo says, he'd have directed more resources and more help to get those bills out on time.

Those interested in taking the city’s new Badger metering system for a test-drive can sign up for a pilot program that will allow access to the online data that shows use to date and can alert you when you’re about to cross that threshold and trigger $21 per 1,000 gallons pricing. Email naschiavo@ci.santa-fe.nm.us to enroll.
Those interested in taking the city’s new Badger metering system for a test-drive can sign up for a pilot program that will allow access to the online data that shows use to date and can alert you when you’re about to cross that threshold and trigger $21 per 1,000 gallons pricing. Email naschiavo@ci.santa-fe.nm.us to enroll. | Courtesty of City of Santa Fe

"I want people's concerns addressed today, and if not today, then tomorrow," he says.

But it took months for him to catch on—and then, he says, "It took a tremendous amount of staff time to get caught up."

After they identified the problem, they had all account data entered within three weeks, Schiavo says.

The department had also accrued $105,000 in staff overtime by January, about the time when he says the department began reining in the problem. On Jan. 27, the average call time, he told city councilors on the Finance Committee, was just about six minutes, and the department was back on track, able to enter account numbers as quickly as they received them.

Schiavo tells SFR he's moved two staff members from customer service to billing to help catch and keep up, but customer service call times are still well below 10 minutes. That's down from times of around 40 minutes.

Top 10 Commercial

(we think)

Public records compiled (twice) by the city of Santa Fe show the commercial water accounts with the highest usage in the city during the calendar year 2015 and the annual amount billed to them.

#1 Quail Run
12,795,600 galllons, $81,291.17

The gated eastside community at Quail Run of 265 residences returns to the list, but Mark Edwards, who controls club operations, says not to be deceived by the numbers: “The community in general divides that water up, so it looks like Quail Run the club, but it’s actually the community that’s using that water.” That’s a rate of about 135 gallons per household per day.

#2 La Fonda
11,598,000 gallons, $218,843.25

Initially, the document we received from the city showed the hotel with a tenfold increase—some 115,980,000 gallons, far above fellow entrants in this category and with water consumption that jumped up from its 2014 consumption of 11,888,900. A new report compiled after we raised that question shows its actual usage decreased 300,000 gallons.

#3 Rancho Carrera Apartments
10,282,600 gallons, $65,428.17

A contributor to our Overheard column wrote about the great outdoor swimming pool at this Southside complex with 208 housing units.

#4 Avaria of Santa Fe
8,005,400 gallons, $66,760.65

An outgoing manager at these apartments on Calle Lorca in the St. Michael’s Drive corridor referred us to a supervisor, who did not return a call as of presstime. But he said, “I know we had an issue with the city of Santa Fe where our water bill was higher than it should have been.”

#5 New Mexico Department of Transportation
3,416,000 gallons, $63,690.20

The state has taken measures to reduce use in their offices and associated landscaping at the corner of Cerrillos and Cordova roads and reports that water consumption at their complex is down some 36 percent from last year. The city pulled multiple meters, so the numbers don’t line up. At all. The fun continues.

#6 El Ice Plant
2,343,300 gallons, $14,910.45

Last year, El Ice Plant produced about 400,000 bags of ice, most of which were sold in June, July, August and September. “We’re using some water, but we’re not wasting it or nothing. It’s all for production,” says Bradley Alarid, whose father, Richard, owns the company. Told of their sixth-place position on our list, Bradley said, “That’s weird, and the reason why it’s weird—this is the 40th year in business, and we’ve never even made the top 20, to be honest with you.”

#7 The Water Man
1,917,500 gallons, $12,201.05

Rick Maestas, owner of The Water Man, calls the number of gallons of water his company sells each year “quasi-confidential,” but says of the city’s numbers for his monthly consumption, “yeah, pretty much.” The process for filtering the water the company sells by 5-gallon, 3-gallon and personal-sized 8-ounce or 16.5-ounce bottles produces 1 gallon of filtered water for every 2 gallons sent through the system. The second gallon is captured and put in a holding tank, treated and used as wash water or sold to those with swimming pools to fill or walls to stucco.

#8 Sena Plaza
1,198,400 gallons, $19,491.68

“If we’re 4 million less than last year’s top 10, how can we even be in the top 10? It just doesn’t make sense,” says Joaquin Sanchez, president of Southwest Asset Management, which oversees the property. The bulk of water use goes to the restaurant, La Casa Sena, as well as to the historic garden. And though the city said they left all accounts with leaks off the list, Sanchez said they weathered one in October that saw their water use more than triple their typical rate.

#9 116 W San Francisco St.
921,900 gallons, $14,730.62

This building houses the Matador and the Santa Fe Culinary Academy, among other downtown retailers, offices and restaurants, and, like La Casa Sena, it is owned by Gerald Peters.

#10 Toyota of Santa Fe
862,400 gallons, $16,666.60

The meter in question connects with a Llano Street address that houses a fenced-in car lot adjacent to the Toyota dealership.

Though staff still sometimes stretches for an extra half-hour of work, Schiavo says, the overtime has largely tapered off, and he doesn't expect to need to make an additional budget request to the city.

"It's definitely quieted down here," he says.

Even though the city website still warned customers at presstime that it "is behind on its billing cycles" and staff are "working aggressively to fix this issue," Schiavo says that as of April, any bills sent out should be up-to-date.

That's just in time for peak water consumption season to start, and the precision in use this new system offers should enable utility managers to look at use patterns by Zip code and target marketing with conservation messages.

Between May and October, the city prohibits outdoor watering between 10 am and 6 pm, and the utility department's ongoing campaign to conserve water will kick off in coming months, as peak season for water demand approaches. These campaigns have led to reduced consumption per capita of more than 50 percent over the last two decades. Average water use comes out to 104 gallons per day, according to the 2015 Santa Fe Trends report, down from 108 in the 2014 report.

While the new Badger meters should be completely installed for residential accounts next month, commercial meters will just be getting started with the switch.

The meters installed so far successfully send in data via cell signal 99 percent of the time, says John Fillinger, director of utility marketing for Badger Meter, and that 1 percent error margin is typical—often the result of something blocking the cell signal, like a car parked over the top of a meter. As to whether other cities have suffered similar problems, he says, "Every utility is different." Some have chosen to automate the process of inputting numbers tied to accounts, he says, but that can create errors that then need to be manually fixed—so Santa Fe's approach of manually entering all the data isn't off the mark. The end result, when the user portion of the data is available, holds promise for increased conservation.

"We've seen through independent, third-party studies that use could be cut by up to 15 percent," Fillinger says.

When SFR finally did get the data for water users, La Fonda topped the list with what the city data indicated was a tenfold increase over their previous consumption. We wrote back to double-check that before holding hotel management's feet to the fires of shame and over-consumption. Turns out, there had been a "discrepancy," and actual water use for the hotel clocked in at 11.6 million gallons, about 300,000 fewer gallons than last year. The hotel dropped from first on the list to second. Based on the discovery of that flaw in the data, city staff offered to double-check all reports. The gist of it was, the task had fallen to someone who doesn't usually do billing, and a decimal point went astray.

We contacted La Fonda to see if they had any complaints with the city's billing last year.

"We've had some anomalies with billing on and off throughout the year," says John Rickey, general manager of La Fonda. "Our billing has been a little irregular. … I'm not saying they're wrong, but it's not the most accurate. … I think you have to take the numbers from the city as they give them to you and hope that their meters are accurate."

Rickey claims the hotel is doing what it can to curb water use. But as "the busiest hotel in town," he says, and essentially the public bathrooms for the Plaza, that water use is just a cost of doing business—and bringing a chunk of gross receipts taxes to city coffers, in addition to employing 260 people.

Top 10 Residential

(we think)

In previous years, SFR’s top residential water users list has been a parable of unattended leaks and sob stories about irrigation systems gone wrong. A driving tour of our city’s heaviest water users still cues a parade of walled gardens, with flowering trees peeking over the tops and flowerbeds filled with spring blossoms.

Top users report hundreds of thousands of gallons running through meters during the year. We typically take this opportunity to grill these folks on just how their consumption clocked in at tenfold what most residents seem to use. But when asked for the 2015 records, the city delayed producing the data we asked for, and even then, we weren’t confident of its accuracy. The city also removed users with leaks from the running.

So we opted to leave your names out of it. You’re off the hook this year, kids. What follows is info about the houses that topped the list, how many gallons they consumed and their annual water cost. We see those swimming pools, those landscaped acres and those sprawling gardens from Google’s satellite maps and from Santa Fe County tax information. Don’t get used to it.

#1 800 block of Camino del Monte Sol
479,700 gallons, $9,659.21

The resident of this 6,500-square-foot, four-bedroom home on 1.3 acres, valued at $18 million, is a repeat visitor to this list, landing in the top 10 users list in 2014 as well (but ranked eighth). The consumption the city reported for 2015 is up 40,000 gallons from that year.

#2 1000 block of Old Santa Fe Trail
430,200 gallons, $8,724.68

This walled historic property includes a five-bedroom house and swimming pool.

#3 400 block of Circle Drive
443,500 gallons, $8,533.79

This $20 million home has a driveway you’d have to hike up to reach the 4,100-square-foot house, with four bedrooms and another pool.

#4 200 block of Camino del Norte
394,800 gallons, $7,587.09

A wall of piñóns shields the view of this 3,300-square-foot, three-bedroom house from the street.

#5 200 block of Camino Encantado
329,000 gallons, $6,219.74

Coyote fencing surrounds this 4.5-acre property, with county assessor’s information pointing to an owner mailing address in Napa, Calif. The 3,800-square-foot residence has four bedrooms.

#6 200 block of Camino del Norte
259,100 gallons, $4,602.46

A coyote fence and gate are visible from the dirt road in front of this 3,500-square-foot, three-bedroom house, the owner for which lists a mailing address in Dallas.

#7 7000 block of Old Santa Fe Trail
252,100 gallons, $4,234.53

This three-bedroom house off the south end of Old Santa Fe Trail is surrounded by a walled garden filled with trees, some of them flowering, that takes up just a portion of the 1-acre lot.

#8 100 block of W Alicante Road
250,300 gallons, $4,238.54

A 1,600-square-foot home, valued at $300,000.

#9 St. Elizabeth’s Shelter, 1900 block of Siringo
239,300 gallons, $1,522.08

The address in question is home to the Siringo Senior Housing Program, which provides eight low-cost apartments for people over the age of 55 who have previously been homeless.

#10 500 block of E Palace Avenue
228,800 gallons, $3,267.34

The lush green lawn for this four-bedroom house, built in 1919, is visible from space.

While he didn't have objections to the city's billing system, Rickey did take the chance to voice some complaints with SFR's annual trotting out of top water users.

"Your articles, I think they don't have the context they should have," he says. "If you take the water use into context of what's being used and how it's being used, the hotel industry is relatively clean."

As in, it doesn't contribute chemicals or other pollutants into the water supply and doesn't produce waste. Unlike, for example, the manufacture of paper and its potential resting place in a landfill. (SFR, we'd like to note, is printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink and can be collected in the city's curbside recycling program.) He suggested we compare water use per employee from his company to ours. So we did: 44,607 gallons per La Fonda employee, and 5,568 per SFR employee.

"We're placed as being a bad guy because we have a sustainable, successful business, and I think that's unfair," he says.

On that note, this year's top 10 list includes El Ice Plant, which produces ice for area gas stations, and The Water Man, a bottled water company. Their high usage numbers are hardly an indicator of negligent overuse. It's just a part of doing business. This year, there was a shakeup of the usual suspects on our list, which was likely a product of the city choosing to pull those customers with leaks from the list—what appears is just honest-to-goodness consumption.

But the reality is that the expense, and perhaps a little public scrutiny, is part of what has fueled us all to install those toilet retrofits and low-flow fixtures. The New Mexico Department of Transportation also made this year's list, and they responded to that information with data on the department's water use: 1.2 million gallons in fiscal year 2015, down from 1.9 million the previous year—a 36 percent reduction. This year's use is on target to match or come in below last year's use. Matt Kennicott, director of communications for NMDOT, points to numerous measures taken to reduce water use at their office complex, such as waterless urinals, 1.6-gallon tanks on the toilets, and aerators on water fixtures. The department is also removing the grass along Cerrillos Road to xeriscape those areas and is looking at ways to utilize effluent water. And their bills, Kennicott points out, have been running late by at least two or three months.

In May 2014, he adds, the city installed a new main water meter to capture consumption at the general office complex and the service center and materials lab. That meter more accurately captures water consumption, he says, and that information is going to be used to identify still more ways to save water.

With long-term forecasts suggesting New Mexico will see less and less groundwater, that's likely the outlook we all should take.