Sewer Fees For Garden Irrigation? Not So Fast

Should gardeners be required to pay sewer fees on water used for irrigation?

Gerry Frost certainly wasn’t accustomed to doing so. After all, the water was going on the plants at the Glover Park Community Garden, not into the sewer. But in 2017, the DC Water monthly bill spiked about 25 percent.

“They went to a new billing system and we were being charged a sewer fee,” said Frost, treasurer since 1999 for the 149-plot community garden. “I went to them and said, ‘We don’t have sewer in the garden’. It took a long time for someone in their billing department to investigate it. I just had to keep calling them every two weeks.”

Frost, a financial analyst by trade, said DC Water eventually removed the sewer charges. He said the water costs more than $400 per month for the six-month irrigation season.

Glover Park COm Garden water Spigot A Image 12-11-19 DSC_0459

OFF: Spigots go dormant for winter at the Glover Park Community Garden in Washington, D.C., where the garden treasurer caught DC Water charging sewer fees for water used for irrigation. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Exactly how DC Water handles sewer charges on irrigation is unclear. A billing clerk who answered the main number said DC Water offers no irrigation discount program. DC Water Vice President for Marketing and Communications John Lisle said, “I am told that if a customer has an irrigation meter, then we would bill them for the water that runs through that meter but not a corresponding sewer charge. If a customer is using their domestic line to irrigate, they will be charged for both water and sewer.” Questions about how arrangements work with DC Water, including how many irrigation meters are now in place, are pending with Lisle.

Water-Sewer Division In South Carolina

Practices around the country vary. At least some water and sewer system operators provide a method to avoid sewer charges, and for some an irrigation discount is automatic.

In Charleston, S.C., water system customers can skip associated sewer charges for water used outdoors. But a separate meter is required.

Water System Communications Manager Mike Saia says the irrigation meter installation costs about $530. A backflow preventer is required to protect the city water from possible contamination and it must be inspected annually, with a report to be submitted to the city that comes with a $30 fee to review.

“It typically pays itself off in a 3- to 5-year period,” Saia said. He said the separate meter adds value to the property. The irrigation accounts have been provided for 70-80 years, with a current total of 6,279. The “current rate of adding irrigation accounts is marginal,” Saia said.

Elsewhere, at ReWa, for example, it’s simpler. The multi-county wastewater treatment authority in Upstate South Carolina bills residents during the summer based on average water use during the winter. The authority says it realizes that outside water use for purposes such as irrigation or pools increases during the warmer months and that most of it does not go into the sewer system. The six-month sewer savings program runs from April to October and residents are automatically enrolled.

At the Glover Park Community Garden, a new meter was installed and now bills can be based on actual instead of estimated water use, Frost said.

Frost advises close reading of water bills and making sure the account is on hold if it is being challenged so that the water doesn’t get turned off. “They knew I was going to pay when they fixed it,” Frost said. “It’s just getting very expensive in D.C. to use water.” He said the bills that used to come only during the irrigation season now come year-round to collect fees, about $49 per month. “Five years ago we weren’t paying a penny when the water was turned off.”