An Alabama family’s water bill tripled after moving just outside of city limits. Here’s why

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Rashah McChesney, Gulf States Newsroom

Six years ago, Jason Clayton moved away from his former home in Gadsden, Alabama. While it was just a few miles down the road — it brought on plenty of changes.

The move to rural Lookout Mountain came with its perks, like the peace and quiet of the rolling countryside and deer and turkeys routinely crossing his family’s yard. But there were some downsides, too, like much higher water bills.

At first, Clayton thought the cause was a leak at his new home. But after turning everything off and checking the water meter, he realized his country paradise just came with a steeper price tag for water, jumping from about $25 a month to $70 — nearly triple the price he was paying in Gadsden.

And while the water’s cost may have changed after the move, the actual water hasn’t. That’s because the water flowing out of Clayton’s faucets in Lookout Mountain is actually coming from Gadsden. The only service his new utility, Highland Water Authority, provides is delivery.

“I don’t think it’s right that we’re having to pay two or three times as more as the city of Gadsden when I lived there and it’s the same exact water,” Clayton said.

Farther distance, higher cost

(From left) Jason Clayton and Miles Mason, look over their water bills in Clayton’s home in Lookout Mountain, Alabama, on April 21, 2023.
(From left) Jason Clayton and Miles Mason, look over their water bills in Clayton’s home in Lookout Mountain, Alabama, on April 21, 2023. Clayton and Mason both live in Lookout Mountain and buy water from Highland Water Authority. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

So, what’s behind the markup?

Part of the explanation is that delivery isn’t so easy. The biggest challenge for rural water providers, like Highland Water, is servicing fewer customers spread farther out — which often equals everyone paying more. While Clayton’s home is just a few minutes’ drive from Highland Water’s main office, the utility maintains about 140 miles of pipes across rocky terrain with only about 1,300 customers footing the bill.

Situations like this are why many rural homeowners rely on private wells, but that’s not an option in Lookout Mountain. Too much iron in the groundwater makes it undrinkable. While that’s usually not a health risk, it’s enough to ruin its taste and stain laundry.

One customer, who was fed up with the prices, decided to dig his own well before learning that lesson the hard way, according to Richard Farley, the general manager for Highland Water.

“He’s got a $4,000 hole in the ground that he can’t even drink the water,” Farley said. “He’s back on us.”

Since the groundwater here’s best left below, that leaves buying drinking water from Gadsden as the only option. Highland Water pays Gadsden the same rate as any other consumer before passing the bill to its customers — along with the added cost of maintaining pipes and other infrastructure.

The deal’s not so unusual, however. Mississippi has dozens of these middle-men utilities buying water from somewhere else and delivering it through rural communities.

“That water bill is a privilege to get to live in this community,” Farley said. “They don’t understand out here just how much we put into it just to keep the price down, and probably never will.”

Mismanagement

Richard Farley, general manager for Highland Water Authority, stands outside of the Highland Water Authority office, on April 21, 2023.
Richard Farley, general manager for Highland Water Authority, stands outside of the Highland Water Authority office, on April 21, 2023. Farley said he used to work at Gadsden’s water provider before taking over this rural utility about 10 years ago. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

But delivery only explains part of the upcharge. Mismanagement also plays a role.

Highland Water had about $2.8 million in debt in 2021, which Farley blames on the leadership before him — accusing them of spending too much on a new building and poor engineering decisions.

“This place was in bad shape,” Farley said, referring to the time immediately after he came in. “The water bill to Gadsden hadn’t been paid in three months.”

Etowah County did not provide names of former Highland Water managers and the Gulf States Newsroom could not find former workers independently.

Mismanagement — and in some cases stealing — does happen at rural water providers, according to Jason Barrett, associate extension professor at Mississippi State University’s Water Resources Research Institute, and it’s more common than people think.

One cause of mismanagement comes from a shortage of water operators nationally, made worse as older workers retire. Finding qualified workers to fill those spots in rural areas is even trickier. A rural association will typically have no legal requirements for whoever handles their books, so Barrett said that can lead to inexperienced workers getting hired to oversee relatively large accounts while making little money themselves.

“Nobody’s checking in on (them) except once a month when the operator comes by or annually when the health department comes by. So who’s going to miss a couple of hundred here or there?” Barrett said. “And then next thing you know, it just compounds.”

Farley said some of Highland Water’s customers have gone online to accuse him of stealing, which he denies. Barrett said Highland Water’s latest audit did not raise red flags for him. The explanation of the price — debt, buying water from elsewhere and delivering it to remote spots — makes sense for a rural water provider.

Independence

Jason Clayton stands on the porch of his home in Lookout Mountain, Alabama, on April 21, 2023.
Jason Clayton stands on the porch of his home in Lookout Mountain, Alabama, on April 21, 2023. Clayton said his monthly water bill is nearly three times as much as he paid when he lived in nearby Gadsden, Alabama. His rural water utility, Highland Water Authority, purchases the water that flows to his home from Gadsden. (Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom)

But just because the high water bills can be explained, doesn’t mean they should be accepted.

The nation has more than 50,000 community water systems. The vast majority, like Highland Water, serves fewer than 10,000 customers. Small providers can’t tap into the economy of scale of the large ones and are often located in rural communities with shrinking populations. One of the go-to recommendations to solve this issue is to merge the providers.

“This is one of those hard discussions we need to have,” Barrett said. “Everybody doesn’t need to be in the water business.”

Farley said he’s had some early talks about Gadsden taking over, but he doesn’t see it happening for what often ends up being a barrier to consolidation — he doesn’t want to give up control to them.

“The Mountain here likes to keep its independence,” Farley said. “We sure don’t want to be annexed into Gadsden, and that’s the first step.”

He’s also proud of what he’s achieved so far at Highland Water. The utility’s slowly been paying off its debt, tightening up its bookkeeping and cutting down on water leaks. Without all that, Farley said the bills would be much higher.

Plus, Attalla Water Department, which also gets its water from Gadsden, charges similar rates as Highland Water. Ultimately, Farley said this is just the cost of living in this rural area, with its waterfalls above ground and iron-tainted water below.

Clayton accepts that living here means having to pay more. He just doesn’t agree with how much more.

“If they want to be one-half-times more that’s fine. Be in the same ballpark,” Clayton said. “Just don’t be three times as much.”

RELATED: Help us report on utility billing issues in the Gulf States

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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