EWU: Water bills should decrease as meter project nears completion

The El Dorado Water Utilities is nearing the completion of a months-long project to convert the city's cellular-based meter-reading system back to automated readers and some customers should soon start to see their water bills return to normal.

As the EWU has worked for the past several months to replace outdated technology in its cellular-based water meters, the utility has contended with calls from dozens of customers who have complained about marked increases in their water bills as a new meter-reading system goes online.

The EWU is fitting existing meters with new endpoints, which use automated meter readers (AMRs) that allow for drive-by readings.

Nearly 10,000 cellular-based meters were purchased and installed in 2015 and 2016 at a cost of more than $2.2 million, replacing an AMR system.

In February of 2021, Robert Edmonds, director of public works, and John Peppers, general manager of the EWU, told city officials that the cellular technology -- 3G (third generation) -- in the water meters' transmitters was expected to be obsolete by the end of the year.

The pair explained that the bandwidth for the transmitters would no longer be used because wireless-service carriers were decommissioning the transmitters and upgrading to new ones.

After more than a year of wrangling with Badger Meter, the manufacturer of the cellular-based water meters, over the terms of the warranty for the meters, the El Dorado City Council, functioning as the former El Dorado Water and Public Works Board, approved the purchase of the new AMR endpoints for 10,300 EWU customers.

The cost was $595,000.

The vote came in December of 2022, several months after the city was granted an extension to address the issue before the bandwidth in the meter transmitters expired.

Installation of the new AMR endpoints began a few weeks later.

By Sept. 27, all but 500 had been installed, Peppers reported.

In August, Peppers told city officials that the EWU had hired a contractor to clear overgrown vegetation from alleyways and abandoned, vacant properties, saying that the overgrowth prevented crews from accessing water meters in those areas.

For customers who had not been switched to the AMR system, Peppers and Laurie Tissue, EWU business and administration manager, explained that their monthly water bills were estimated, according to the average use from the previous 12 months.

"We do not have the manpower to physically go out and read the meters," Peppers explained at the time.

Council Member Willie McGhee inquired about how the process works, including how the amount of the bill is determined, saying that he had heard from residents who said the amount of their water bill remained unchanged, even though they had gone out of town for a month.

"We try to do it in line with the usage their bill has been showing for last year," said Peppers.

Tissue said the EWU's billing software calculated customers' invoices and that customers would receive a credit on their account if their bills had been overestimated.

"We had some ... they'll call and they tell us they know it's not right and we'll send a tech out and we'll have them get a real read and if we need to adjust, we do do that," Tissue said. "We do know, sometimes, it's not accurate."

Peppers said the new endpoints allow for accurate meter reads on a monthly basis.

He told city council members on Sept. 27 that 9,500 new AMR endpoints had been installed and alleyways and other areas cleared in the last EWU billing district that has not been converted to the new AMR system.

The EWU has seven billing districts.

Council Member Roy Bullock, who holds the Ward 3, Position 2 seat, said residents in his ward have reported experiencing sticker shock with their recent water bills.

"I've had several people in my community ask me about the increase, not just an increase, but a great increase in the cost of their water bills and right now, I don't have a plausible answer for them," Bullock said.

Edmonds provided a rundown of the history involving the purchase of the cellular meter readers in 2015 and the sunset of the 3G service on which they had operated.

As installation of the new endpoints progressed from Dec. 31, the date the 3G transmitters sunset, to the point of substantial completion in August, Edmonds said EWU customers' monthly water bills had been estimated.

"Some were estimated to the good, some were under- and overestimated," he said. "This last billing would have been the (last billing) zone, so everybody, with the exception of that 500 meters that were in a grownup alley or hard-to-reach place, should be on the new system."

Edmonds said he has spoken to approximately 50 - 75 people who complained of costly water bills over the past several months.

He said the EWU has worked with customers to sort out the issue.

Some customers' bills have been adjusted, while other customers have set up payment plans.

"After this next billing cycle, everybody's water bill should go down to about what it was before this estimation ... They weren't billed for anything they didn't use," said Edmonds.

For more information or to report a jump in your water bill, call the EWU at 870-862-6451 or the Department of Public Works at 870-863-4244.