Do you bear the cost of water lost?

Defenders look at whether cost of broken water mains, wasted water

SAN ANTONIO – Water is a precious resource in South Texas, so seeing water spewing sky high after a water main break is cause for frustration.

“We don’t have a drop to waste,” said Doug Meeks with the South Texas Damage Prevention Council.

San Antonio Water System says more frequent water main breaks recently are a symptom of more digging being done around throughout the city, especially when it comes to internet fiber installation.

Accidents happen, but Meeks believes state regulations could do more to prevent them.

 “That’s really the point of the 811 system,” said Meeks. “A single three-digit number where you can call anywhere in the country and get free utility locates.”

“Call before you dig” public service announcements alert the community to call 811 to find out where underground utilities are located before you do any digging in order to avoid an accident, or potential catastrophe.

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But Texas Utilities Code only requires communications and power providers to give the One Call Center the location of their lines.

Water utilities are exempt.

Meeks says contractors coming in from out of state sometimes aren’t familiar with Texas Utilities Code, and not all companies take the extra step to contact water utilities directly in addition to dialing 811.

“Some do. But there's no legal obligation on the excavator's part to seek out any utility operating outside of the 811 system,” Meeks said.

Some Texas water utilities voluntarily participate in the One Call Center, like the city of Fort Worth.

The Fort Worth Water Department began participating in 2009 and “immediately discovered that there was a lot more excavating activity threatening our assets than we knew about,” according to a department spokesperson.

SAWS does not take part in the One Call Center, estimating doing so would have cost more than a million dollars in 2016.

Utilities pay less than a dollar for each call that the One Call Center receives plus the cost of manpower to confirm the location of the underground utilities.

“We didn’t see it long term as something that was efficient or cost effective for our rate payers,” said SAWS spokesperson, Anne Hayden.

Yet, in 2016, it cost SAWS $794,000 to repair water lines damaged by contractors.

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“What we charge back against them includes the cost of the water that's lost,” Hayden said.

As of mid-February, SAWS had only recouped $274,000, or just over a third, of what was billed to contractors.

“Many excavators, as they become more aware of the specifics of the law as far as who operates within the system and who doesn’t, many of them are refusing to pay for damages,” Meeks said.

SAWS says it budgets for damaged lines and water lost each year and insists the cost is not passed onto the customer.

The One Call Center is supposed to inform companies that plan to dig that they have to contact water utilities directly.

SAWS says it’s making its own improvements.

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"There's better communication from the city and SAWS, in turn, has improved our communication all the way around,” Hayden said.

Rep. Lyle Larson, R-District 122, a member of the House Natural Resource Committee, said so far this issue hasn’t been big enough to catch the attention of the state Legislature.

“I think it’s ambiguous right now,” said Larson. “Both in local codes and ordinances and at the state level.”

Time will tell if lawmakers see the need to dig into it.

“Somebody has to pay the price,” Meeks said. “If the utility is stuck with the bill, who pays?”

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