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Casey Christie / The Californian

In this northwest Bakersfield subdivision, neighbors Nancy Wells, left, Robert Robinson, center, and Sreedevi Gopalan, right, are unhappy with the current water bills they have each received.

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Californian columnist Lois Henry

I don't care what anyone says, when you have to go to your mom's house to shave your legs for fear of using too much water at your own house, something is drastically wrong.

And, yeah, that's what Nancy Wells has resorted to in a so far futile effort to lower her water bills.

She's not alone. Residents up and down her street are dealing with what they feel are outrageous bills even as they cut back outside watering, take military-style showers, time their kids in the bathroom, do laundry at relatives' homes and more. One couple even paved over half their front yard and still no relief.

It's all part of daily life on Cape Hatteras Drive, a brand, spanking new subdivision in northwest Bakersfield where houses were all built with the latest in low flow bathrooms and water-stingy appliances.

"A case of bottled water is cheaper than drinking from our own taps," said Wells who called me out of pure frustration when she couldn't get adequate answers from California Water Service about why her bills are so high.

I went to meet with her on a hot September evening and neighbors poured out of their houses, water bills in hand.

"You know it's bad when you pay less for PG&E than water," said one man. (There were so many people talking all at once, it was hard to keep them straight.)

These are, basically, tract homes between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet on 10,000-square-foot lots. That's a good sized lot, but not close to "estate sized," such as the houses to the south. And while the Cape Hatteras folks all have grass and a few spindly trees, none of the yards are lushly landscaped. Several people still have dirt for back yards and no one I spoke with had a pool.

Yet, all the residents are paying close to $100 a month. In some cases, much much more.

"The first month we moved in, we couldn't use the house for showers or wash for two weeks because we had a problem with our gas. And still we got a high bill," said Sreedevi Gopalan. The Gopalans were the first to move into the Lennar Homes subdivision.

Gopalan called about that first bill right away and said someone from Cal Water told her the bills would go down as more people moved into the neighborhood and costs were spread out.

"That doesn't make any sense," she said. "I should only be charged for what my meter says I used."

Unfortunately, for the Gopalans and the other Cape Hatteras residents, their meters do say they're using a lot of water. More, it turns out than the average Bakersfield resident.

The Gopalans first bill shows they were charged $91.83 for 32 CCF of water in March.

Subsequent bills show the following: $175.20 for 71 CCF in April: $289.66 for 124 CCF in May: $170.75 for 69 CCF in June: $129.69 for 50 CCF in July; and $123.60 for 47 CCF in August.

One CCF is 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons, which means the Gopalan have supposedly been using an average of 48,994 gallons per month.

That works out to 408 gallons per day per family member (the Gopalans have two children.)

According to a 2009 U.S. Geological Survey report, water consumption in Bakersfield averages 215 gallons per person per day.

Gopalan couldn't believe how much the meter said her family is using. (She's the one who times her kids' bathroom use.)

"We don't even use the bathtub, we never turn it on," she said. "And we've cut back watering to three minutes only once a day. I don't know what to do. It's just too much."

Excluding the Gopalans, who were at the high use end, I did the same calculations on the other 16 bills neighbors gave me covering mostly June and July. Those bills showed an average of 249 gallons per day, per capita (that's assuming four-person households, though many on Cape Hatteras are just two-person households).

That's still higher than the Bakersfield average. And it's really high considering these are supposed to be water-efficient homes.

So what gives?

I asked Rudy Valles, director of Cal Water's Bakersfield office, and he wasn't sure.

But after a trip out to the neighborhood, he felt the culprit might be the yards.

He timed the sprinklers and found they were running about nine to 10 minutes per section.

Assuming residents are watering twice a day for new landscaping, he said, that alone can work out to 39 CCF per month, 78 CCF if they're watering the same amount in their back yards.

Other than that, he said, none of the five meters he checked had any leaks.

Wells had hoped to solve the problem by reducing her watering and capping sprinklers, which was the advice of a Water Wise technician who evaluated her house for free as part of Cal Water's "high bill investigation" procedure.

The tech gave Wells' house a perfect score for water efficiency but her yard, he said, had way too many sprinklers and the timer was set too often and for too long.

Wells and her husband quickly cut back to three minutes a day and capped off sprinklers that overlapped.

Because her billing cycle started later in the month in July than it did in August, I looked at her average per-day usage, which did go down thanks to her efforts. It went from 1.36 CCF per day on her July bill to 1.13 CCF in August.

That's headed in the right direction, but she's still facing a $95 bill and that's just with her and her husband in the house.

"My daughter and her two babies are coming to live with us and I'm scared, very, very scared," of what that could mean for her water bill.

Wells had contacted Lennar Homes for help, perhaps to have a landscaper reconfigure sprinklers, cut back timers and explain what's happening to residents. She said Lennar is considering her request.

Other neighbors flat didn't buy that overwatering is the problem.

"We've cut back our watering and the number of sprinklers," said Ginger Simpson. "We even took out an entire section of lawn and we have no backyard."

She believes there's a metering problem and it seems to be centered on Cape Hatteras.

"The neighbor behind me just put in a pool and I'm thinking, 'How can you afford to fill that up?'"

I asked Valles if Cape Hatteras could have a batch of bad meters. He agreed there's always that chance and said he'd swap some out if residents wanted.

Other neighbors agreed with the meter theory saying they have friends and family living just blocks away, in Cal Water's service area, who aren't experiencing such tremendous bills.

However I checked and it turns out that in some of those cases, those friends and family were actually living in the City of Bakersfield's territory. It can get confusing because Cal Water does the city's billing.

While Cal Water charges between $1.49 and $188 per CCF depending on use, the city charges .91 per CCF no matter how much you use.

Cal Water's service charge is also higher, $33.06 for a one-inch meter, versus the city's $14.55.

Cal Water is a for profit company and allowed to build a profit into its charges. Municipal water districts are only allowed to recoup their costs.

Cape Hatteras resident Tonya Comstock was one of several residents who previously lived in Bakersfield's territory. She's extremely frustrated that she's using less water with Cal Water but paying far more.

"If that's how much they charge and they're allowed to do it, OK fine," she said. "But builders should tell you how much more the water is going to cost before you buy."

Especially when builders are touting a home's water efficiency as a selling point.

"People don't know," she said of the cost differences. "It should be disclosed. Otherwise, how do you know if you can really afford to live here?"

A new neighbor just moved in down the street and she saw him hosing off the driveway.

"I wanted to run up to him and say, 'Hey! Stop! Don't you know that's liquid gold you're using?!'"

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com LOIS HENRY: Water flows like money on one Bakersfield street