DRAINED: KPRC 2 Investigates excessive water bills and the struggle to get answers

Unable to pay huge bill, Acres Homes senior lived without water for 4 years

HOUSTON – It’s beyond frustrating when you have a major problem and no one seems to be able to help. For months, our KPRC 2 Investigates team has heard your complaints about your City of Houston water bills. These concerns include everything from excessive water bills to outrageous and irregular meter readings.

Customers want answers about water bills

Customers are feeling “drained” and frustrated that there is no apparent recourse and seemingly no one in the city who will listen. It’s why all this week our team is taking a hard look at these issues and pushing city leaders for solutions.

Senior citizen manages without water for 4 years

For 68-year-old Edward Williams, life on Fortune Street in Acres Homes is a sad irony.

KPRC 2 Investigates high water bills. Edward Williams was unable to pay a huge water bill and had his water shut off. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“This is how it fits into my face bowl. This is how I use and I bathe with it,” said Williams.

Williams shows us how he lived in this two-bedroom flat for four years with no running water. He used a small bucket with water to wash his face and then later flush the commode. We asked him what the hardest part about this was.

“My grandkids want to come over and spend the weekend with Papa and I couldn’t deal with it,” he said.

Williams said he didn’t tell anyone about his situation until his son stopped by in April and tried to use the bathroom.

“I said, ‘Well, son just don’t worry about it. I’ll get it later.’ he said, ‘What’s the problem?’” said Williams. “‘Well, my water’s off. I got to flush it, by the buckets.’ He said, ‘How long has that been?’ I said ‘Four years.’ He said, ‘4 years? Naw Dad, you ain’t got to live like this.’”

Williams’ son set up a payment plan with the water department to pay down what his father owed. They turned his water back on with the first payment of $1,100 and an agreement to pay the remainder of his $2,500 debt each month. That was the end of April. But just as Williams thought his water woes were over, his relief was drained when his very next bill showed he owed thousands more dollars.

“I done worked myself to a frenzy, praying on it, praying on it, praying on it.”

KPRC 2 Investigates high water bills. Edward Williams says it is hard to believe he used thousands of dollars worth of water. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Customers say water bill issues are often confusing

This is just one of the examples KPRC 2 Investigates identified where the city leaves customers like Williams financially and mentally drained over confusing water usage bills and a lack of communication and transparency.

“It is our desire every single day, to provide good service to provide good and accurate billing, to have good relationships with the customers,” said Public Works Director, Carol Haddock.

Carol Haddock is the director of Houston Public Works, and the boss of the water department.

“We recognize that there’s always room for improvement,” she said.

Williams has worked for five months to get answers from the city about this $7,493 bill. So far, there is no explanation of where it came from.

“Can’t nobody tell me nothing,” said Williams.

KPRC 2 Investigates high water bills. One Acres Homes resident lived without water for 4 years after he was unable to pay a $7,000+ water bill. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Williams’ landlord hired a plumber to dig up the water line to look for leaks.

“Couldn’t find no leak in the pipes. As you can see, no leak,” he said.

Williams sent the city this plumber’s report from ARS that reads, “I don’t believe there is a leak in the water line and as a professional plumber would request the responsible authority replace the meter and have it tested.”

While one city employee after another put Williams off, he spotted a Public Works employee removing something from his water meter box at the end of August.

“He goes up there and snatches all the old stuff out of the box. And I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? ‘Oh, we upgrading.’ Well, you can’t do that. We are under review here.”

But Williams said there was no test and no review just the city holding firm that he owed the money. When the water department never responded, Williams took his plea straight to the top: The Houston City Council. Despite voicing their concerns, council members sent Williams right back to the water department.

Outrageous water bills

Williams is not alone. Dozens of customers have sent us their outrageous bills. We’ve introduced you to several customers with unexplained high water bills.

In August 2022, KPRC2 Investigates looked into unusually high water bills in the Kingwood area. City Councilman Dave Martin is asking people to call 3-1-1 and his office to report high bills. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Over the last 15 months, the KPRC 2 Investigates team has called and emailed the City of Houston about these issues. Water customers are billed thousands of dollars, meters unread month after month, and unexplained outrageous adjustments to customers’ bills.

“Like every company in the City of Houston and nationwide, we struggled to find enough good employees to fill our positions. Our vacancies in our call center. We’ve been as high as 50% vacancies over the last year and a half,” said Haddock.

Haddock said the call center now has about 30 to 40% of its positions unfilled. And aging infrastructure means the city is receiving fewer actual meter reads each month. But none of that explains why no one is listening to Edward Williams.

“Just common sense would say if you saw where this man lived, there is no way that he used 74,000 gallons of water in one month,” said Investigator Amy Davis.

“And that you’re right, that that’s a lot of water. And that doesn’t make sense that somebody is getting that kind of bill. And those are exactly the kind that the mayor says to reach out to us. And, you know, let’s work with them one on one and try and figure out what’s going on what happened,” said Haddock.

KPRC2 Investigates unusually high water bills. (Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

After the interview, Public Works Department agreed to adjust Williams’ bill. They are still doing the math to determine how much of an adjustment he can get with an unusually large water bill adjustment. Until our interview, no one from the city told Williams he might qualify for that. Haddock said the city hopes to have customer service reps at the water department let customers know about the water bill adjustment option.

Unusually large water bill adjustment

If you get an unexplained, irregular bill like Williams you might be eligible for an unusually large water bill adjustment.

How you can apply for a water bill adjustment.

About the Authors:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.

Award-winning TV producer and content creator. My goal as a journalist is to help people. Faith and family motivate me. Running keeps me sane.