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Columbia customers still owe for undrinkable water

Floodwaters close in on homes on a small piece of land on Lake Katherine in Columbia, S.C., Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. After a week of steady rain, the showers tapered off Monday and an inundated South Carolina turned to surveying a road system shredded by historic flooding.
Floodwaters close in on homes on a small piece of land on Lake Katherine in Columbia, S.C., Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. After a week of steady rain, the showers tapered off Monday and an inundated South Carolina turned to surveying a road system shredded by historic flooding. AP

Columbia residents will be charged fully for water they could not drink after the flooding in early October, city officials said.

“The water that they use is what goes through the meter. That’s what they get billed for,” said Joey Jaco, the city’s utilities director.

The historic floods that swept through South Carolina on Oct. 4 left Columbia’s water system reeling. Broken water lines and a breach in downtown’s Columbia Canal, a reservoir for a water-treatment plant serving 188,000 customers, led the city to issue a systemwide boil-water advisory.

Most of the city’s 375,000 water customers had to boil water before drinking or cooking until the city repealed the advisory on Oct. 14. The city isn’t offering discounts for water used during that time, Jaco said.

“People still use water during a boil-water advisory,” Jaco said. “Anytime you wash clothes, take a bath or flush your toilet, you’re using water.”

Victoria Kramer, communication manager for the city’s utilities department, said most customers’ bills shouldn’t have been affected by the flooding. In addition, the city doesn’t charge customers when it flushes its water distribution lines: That’s the city using water, not customers.

Kramer said the city will expect customers to pay base fees, which cover system needs such as repairing pipes, pumps and other elements of the distribution system, and water use fees for their service in October.

Residents last week filled several posts on a Shandon community Facebook page with complaints and questions about their water bills. Some complained their bills rose or stayed the same even though they used less water during the advisory.

Larry Mattox, 64, who said he has lived in Shandon for 25 years, said his most recent bill was $98.83 – the same as last month’s. That seems odd, Mattox said, because his family cut its water use at least in half during the advisory and used bottled water for consumption, brushing teeth and washing hands.

“We were amazed when we got our bill,” Mattox said. He added that given his home didn’t suffer flooding damages and he never had to evacuate, “we’re not so shortsighted here to think that we’ve having it bad compared to so many other people.”

Jaco said Thursday he was not aware of any complaints the city has received from residents about being billed for water during the boil-water advisory.

But, Jaco said, “You’re only billed what goes through your meter.”

Jaco said he couldn’t comment on individual customers’ bills. But, he said, water bills are precise to units of 100 cubic feet – nearly 750 gallons. That means it’s possible for customers to receive identical water bills in consecutive months, he said.

Customers with questions about water bills can call the city’s customer care phone line at 803-545-3300.

Jaco said customers with concerns can have the city inspect their meters and adjust them for any inaccuracies. The city can also check for leaks and explain to customers how the meter works, Jaco said.

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