NEWS- Drought watch? Mysteries abound at top-20 water users

Southwood Mobile Homes wants to lose its position as the top water user in Albemarle County.

Despite the mandatory water conservation measures now in effect, as long as you pay your water bill, you can pretty much use as much water as you like.

Take, for example, Southwood Mobile Homes, Albemarle County's largest user, gulping down 30 million gallons of water during the 2007 fiscal year and a perennial top user. The average county household uses 56,400 gallons a year; the average in Southwood is more than 50 percent more, at nearly 86,000 gallons. 

"We've known for a while," says Gary Fern, executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority. "If they're not in violation of the restrictions, there's nothing we can do."

But he does concede, "It's certainly a lot of water."

And in fact, with its 350 units, Southwood has been leaking like a sieve for years. When Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville bought the 100-acre property south of Charlottesville in March, "We immediately realized we had to do something because the water bill was huge," says Lynne Conboy, chairman of the Habitat board. 

"We've been repairing lots of leaks," she says. "We're going to each trailer and making sure they have a working meter."

One of the reasons Southwood residents could ignore leaks for so long was that they paid only a fraction of water bills that in real life would run hundreds of dollars. 

"There was no connection between what we charged residents, and what the county charged us," Conboy explains. "We thought there was no way we could subsidize this. We've been very proactive. These were inherited problems." At the same time, Habitat was aware it was dealing with low-income residents and that some of the bills would have been "astronomical."

Thus far, Habitat has spent $80,000 on plumbing repairs and installing meters because it believes residents will be more responsive if they pay their own water bills.

"We have found leaks under trailers that were leaking for a long time because they were paying $15 for water," says Conboy. "When we tell them they'd pay $300 or $400, they get it fixed."

Habitat doesn't defer getting leaks fixed, says Conboy, and now residents are calling in to report leaks whereas before they didn't. "It's a daunting task," she says. "It's been a huge challenge, and there are other things we'd rather spend the money on."

Southwood owns up to its leaky history. More perplexing is the number-two user in Albemarle County: Four Seasons Apartments, with 310 units that drank 26.5 million gallons in the past fiscal year. That's a whopping 85,000 gallons per unit, nearly 30,000 gallons more than the county's annual average.

"We definitely monitor bills and usage," says Sarah Drumheller, senior property manager at Four Seasons. "We have quarterly inspections, and we fix repairs."

Four Seasons residents do not have their own meters. They pay a $15 to $25 utility fee each month, and they're conscientious about reporting problems, says Drumheller.

The complex used seven million more gallons than the next apartments on the top-10 list: Old Salem (now Barracks West condos), which has even more units– 364– and consumed 19.4 million gallons. 

"I'm sorry to hear we're one of them," says Drumheller about the top-10 list. As a result of the drought restrictions on watering, "Everything we have here is dying. We're not irrigating."

In Charlottesville, it's not surprising that UVA is the city's biggest water user, clocking in at 474.35 million gallons.

That number serves 13.7 million square feet of facilities and a faculty, student, and staff population of more than 33,000, according to UVA's director of energy and utilities, Cheryl Gomez. "That's a pretty big population," she says, and it includes the UVA Medical Center. (Number two on the city list, Martha Jefferson Hospital, uses 28.3 million gallons annually.) 

Even before the 2002 drought, UVA was taking measures to curtail its usage, which measured 672 million gallons in 1999 over 10.2 million square feet, says Gomez.

"We replaced water shower heads, and commodes are almost all low-flush," she lists. "We have leak detection systems. We replaced piping like crazy around Grounds. Last year, we replaced the entire water distribution system in the Academical Village."

New students get brochures about water and energy conservation, and those showering at the Aquatic and Fitness Center are urged to keep it under five minutes.

"We haven't introduced the urgency of if we get to an emergency situation," says Gomez, "but we're prepared to do that."

Some customers have been concerned that the drought restrictions will bring higher water bills. "We're not intending to [raise rates]," says Albemarle County Service Authority's Fern. "It's not likely we're going to move into a drought emergency, and that's the only reason we'd raise rates."

Likewise in Charlottesville, director of public works Judith Mueller says about a rate hike, "At this point, there's no discussion on that."

Already, at an August 29 meeting, the Albemarle County Service Authority backed away from a restriction prohibiting topping off swimming pools. Now pool owners can fill above the skimmer line, says Fern. "The health department became concerned the water would become stagnant and breed mosquitoes," he says.

"It sounds very simple, but you just can't turn a pool off, because it becomes a standing pond with no circulation or filtration" says John Vermillion at Charlottesville Sanitary Supply. That leads to algae growth, mosquito infestations, and disease. 

"They had set themselves up for a pretty serious health situation," he says. "Swimming pools use very little water once the pool is filled. The knee-jerk reactions are more dangerous."


Consumption July 1, 2006- June 30, 2007

User Gallons 

Southwood Mobile Homes 30,080,000

Four Seasons Apartments 26,500,000

Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail 21,210,000

Old Salem (now Barracks West) 19,400,000

Abbington Crossing 18,600,000

Westgate 17,900,000

Turtle Creek Condominiums 16,610,000

Colonnades 14,734,000

Hyosung America 11,687,000

Eldercare Gardens 10,295,000

– From Albemarle County Service Authority


User Gallons

UVA 474,352,950

Martha Jefferson Hospital 28,314,164

Charlottesville Redevelopment & Housing 23,196,851

City of Charlottesville 22,660,566

Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. 15,505,580

Hearthwood Apartments 13,225,113

Days Inn 10,847,473

Omni hotel 10,636,523

Friendship Court 7,615,149

Holiday Inn 6,528,232

– From City of Charlottesville finance department