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Residents complain about irrigation water rates

LAWRENCEVILLE - It's no secret the summer tiered pricing policies that went into effect July 1 have caused some Gwinnettian's home water bills to skyrocket.

This especially seems to be true for those who didn't have separate irrigation accounts and began watering their yards after the drought ended. Besides the costs associated with water consumption, those residents are charged sewerage fees for water used on their lawns.

So what about those who've installed separate irrigation accounts for watering and aren't charged sewerage fees?

Their bills skyrocketed, too, and that's because on June 1 the cost of water passing through those irrigation meters doubled in price.

Some of those residents who installed separate irrigation meters say they've been cheated, too.

Lawrenceville's Ted Marshall, a retired social studies teacher, is one of them. He installed a separate irrigation meter at his house for watering his yard when he moved from New York in the 1990s. He said he was encouraged to do so "because it was more economical." He paid more than $800 up front for the new meter.

Eventually the drought hit and he couldn't use the irrigation system anymore. So he installed three, 60-gallon rain barrels and started conserving, even going as far as measuring weekly rainfall using a rain gauge, because Bermuda grass only needs one inch of rain per week, he said. Yet Marshall kept receiving bills each month for a little more than $7 for the irrigation account, even though this second meter indicated he'd used nothing. So he turned it off entirely to save money.

The day after Gov. Sonny Perdue announced the drought over, he called to turn it back on, only to find out there would be a $50 activation fee to do so. He said he was never informed of that fee when he turned it off the first time. He subsequently discovered that if he wanted to turn it back off after summer, because he doesn't use the system in the winter at all, that too would cost him $50.

"There's no advantage to shutting off your meter anymore because the fees charged are about the same (as keeping it turned on and not using it)," he said.

Then Marshall received his first bill with the doubled rate for his irrigation account.

"Right now I don't see that it's any cheaper to have an irrigation meter than it is to just run off your house. But I have so much invested in this," Marshall said. "It's absolutely incredible. I'm using less water than I ever used and I'm paying double for it."

A bill produced from July 2006 showed that, at the time, Marshall used 55,000 gallons and was charged $249.05. His July bill showed he used 25,100 gallons and was charged $251.78. On the back of that most recent bill was the notice that indicated the rate charged for irrigation water had doubled.

"We never knew it went up until then," Marshall said of the rate increase notice. "I'm doing everything right and we're getting slapped for doing the right thing."

Lynn Smarr of Gwinnett's Department of Water Resources said the fees associated with account activation went into effect Jan. 1, 2008, in lieu of collecting deposits on residential accounts, and added that all changes are posted on its Web site.

She said that of the 10,000 irrigation meters installed, only about 7,000 are active.

"Many customers have chosen not to place their irrigation meters in service," Smarr said.

She also defended the irrigation water rate hike.

"The main focus on the irrigation water rate is to promote smart use of our water resources," Smarr said. "Outdoor irrigation is considered discretionary use so it's important to charge those customers who use the additional service a higher rate so that we can keep our overall consumption charge as low as possible."

That didn't seem to resonate with Katrina Furqueron.

"I can't agree that penalizing residents that spent $1,000 or more to install a second meter for irrigation water is a form of encouraging conservation," Furqueron said in an e-mail to the Daily Post. "It seems more of a way for the county to increase lost revenue because residents did such a good job with conservation during the drought. Perhaps a tiered rate for irrigation water might work better."