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How I Spent My Winter Vacation: Reading My Water Meter

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Hoping to relax and rejuvenate, I took the week off between Christmas and New Years’ (even from blogging) and spent it at our condo in Palm Desert. What I did not count on was encountering my own dispute – up close and personal – against an unyielding bureaucracy. While I am a strong advocate of mediating not litigating disputes, I, once again, understand why at times one has to threaten litigation to get the other party to resolve a dispute.

It all started on Christmas Eve when we received the water bill from the Coachella Valley Water District (“CVWD”). While according to CVWD, we used about 6 CCF (CCF = one hundred cubic feet where 1 CCF = 748 gallons) or about 4,488 gallons of water in November 2010, CVWD was now claiming we had used 67 CCF (or 50,116 gallons) during the 27 day period between meter readings (11/20/10 to 12/17/19). Interestingly, we were there only 4 of those days – over Thanksgiving; otherwise, the condo – with a small side yard (no pool, no spa) – was vacant.

I, immediately, called our gardener and asked him to provide me with a meter reading and to shut off the water. He did so. Not surprisingly, when we arrived at the condo two days later, the meter had not moved at all. Thus, I knew we had no leaks between the meter out on the street and the water shut off valve on the side of the condo.

Having previously gone through these aberrant meter readings with the CVWD on 2 prior occasions, I knew that if I called to complain, the customer service clerk would simply tell me that perhaps I have a leak under the condo or in the sprinkler system. From this past experience, I knew that the CVWD employee would be quite unsympathetic and unyielding taking a “scorched earth” position of that is what the meter says and so pay it. The clerk would never admit that perhaps someone read the meter incorrectly or some other error occurred.

So, I called a plumber who tested for leaks within and under the condo. As I expected, he found no leaks. He also tested the sprinkler system and again – as I expected – no leaks.

In addition, we had the gardener come by and while I watched the water meter, he turned each sprinkler station on. Again – no surprises – each station ran smoothly; the water meter did not start moving crazily.

This time, I had my husband call CVWD customer service and present the clerk with all of the evidence. (I thought a man might get a better reception.) The clerk was still unyielding; the clerk pointed out that according to the meter and the readings he gave her, we have used even more water this month (35 CCF or 26,180 gallons of water in ten days!) than last month and so our bill will be even higher. The only thing she suggested was to have a meter technician come out and “test” the meter. We made the appointment for later this week.

In the meantime, I spent my vacation reading my water meter a few times each day and doing the math to calculate how many gallons of water we consumed. I have now become an expert meter reader! My calculations were in line with the amounts consumed as reflected on previous water bills before all of this nonsense arose, (or for those months for which I did not receive aberrant water bills).

After reading the meter continually for a week, I have no doubt that the meter is not faulty; it was the person reading the meter who did so incorrectly or some other erroneous event causing the crazy water bill.

So, I strongly expect that when the CVWD technician comes out this week to test the meter, she will find it to be without fault. The trick will be to convince CVWD that someone read the meter incorrectly: 50,116 gallons of water had to go somewhere and if this amount went into the soil (via the sprinkler system as CVWD is so quick to claim) the yard would be muddy – if not one huge sink hole – to say the least. This much water simply does not disappear into thin air!

Although I have written a very detailed letter to the CVWD protesting the bill, I have been told that I may have to threaten suit, if not actually file one, to convince CVWD to adjust the bill. CVWD takes an unyielding – “take no prisoner” – approach and only backs down when law suits are threatened.

It is rather silly that I have put so much time and effort into disputing a $235.00 water bill (as well as incur the expense of the plumber and my gardener). To this I respond: “it is the principle of the thing!” I have heard this refrain so many times as a mediator and have responded with pragmaticism (“get over it, settle the dispute and move on”). But, telling myself to be pragmatic gets me nowhere, here. No one likes to be cheated, and my frustration grows when the other party – CVWD – will not even acknowledge that there may be “something” wrong. While, as a mediator, I have always understood these concerns; as a disputant, these concerns are now really upfront and personal to me. I am unable to take my own mediation advice –be pragmatic, pay it and move on! Rather, I am willing to get even sillier by filing suit in a small claims court that is 150 miles away, to fight this bill, if I have to.

I guess it is one thing to be an objective third party mediating other parties’ disputes, and quite another to be in the middle of one, yourself. I am learning that it is not always so easy to overlook “principles” for the sake of putting “it” behind you and that litigation or the threat of it is sometimes, the only way to resolve things.

. . .Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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