If you feel like your water bill has been higher than usual lately, there a few things you can keep in mind that may help you determine the cause:
- First, check that pipes on your property aren’t leaking. A leaky pipe could lead to a larger water bill. Even a small leak can add up quickly! Leaks can be underground as well as above ground. Here’s more info on how to check for leaks: https://www.sugarlandtx.gov/695/Water-Leaks
- Log in to your account on Paymentus to see your water consumption history for the last two years by month. Typically, August and September bills can be higher due to the weather in our area. Access your account here: https://ipn.paymentus.com/cp/sxan
- If the meter reading doesn’t look right, call us and we’ll send someone to reread the meter. Remember: While your water bill may be higher than before you were annexed into the City, you as a resident are not paying MUD taxes anymore. Many MUDs subsidize water rates through property taxes, which the City does not — the charges for services are the only revenue stream. However, if the meter reading doesn’t look right, call us and we’ll send someone to reread the meter.
- After years of not raising utility rates (since 2014), the City raised rates in 2020 and 2021 to keep up with the increasing costs of providing services and preparation for the upcoming 60% groundwater reduction mandate.
Residents will see higher utility bills beginning January 2022 as the City of Sugar Land prepares to meet this countywide unfunded water mandate. The average residential utility bill will increase by approximately $10 per month starting in January 2022.
How did the groundwater reduction mandate come about, and how is the city preparing?
The Fort Bend Subsidence District was created by the Texas Legislature in 1989. The District’s purpose is to regulate the withdrawal of groundwater within the District to prevent subsidence that contributes to flooding and infrastructure damages. The District’s boundary is defined as all the territory within Fort Bend county. Although Fort Bend County experienced minor amounts of subsidence prior to the 1980’s, several characteristics of the area raised concern about the potential for increasing subsidence in the future such as:
- Rapid growth
- Water supply dependent almost entirely on groundwater
- Proximity to significant water-level declines in Harris county
The Fort Bend Subsidence District required the City to convert 30% of its water demand to non-groundwater sources by 2014. The City utilizes surface water from the Brazos River and Oyster Creek, said Katie Clayton, Assistant Director of Public Works for the City of Sugar Land.
The City was able to abide by this mandate efficiently thanks to the Surface Water Treatment Plant. The plant, however, does not have the resources to meet the requirements of the next phase that the City needs to be at 60% non-groundwater sources by 2025.
Two groups, the City Council Task Force and a Citizen Task Force, were tasked with identifying areas of improvement and outlining solutions needed for Sugar Land to take steps toward converting to alternative or non-ground water supply.
The two groups, who met separately on a monthly basis for two years starting in March 2017, outlined a plan that would also meet goals and objectives within the community, such as:
- Providing reliable water supply
- Optimizing water resources
- Promoting system efficiency
- Developing cost-efficient solutions
- Protecting the environment
- Maintaining quality of life
- Promoting equity
The IWRP is a result of the work of both task forces, as well as city staff and consultants who were hired to help flesh out the needs of the City.
“All of the projects within the IWRP have a purpose,” said Brian Butscher, Director of Public Works for the City of Sugar Land. “We have the reliable infrastructure that is needed in order to meet our future needs.”
The City will complete projects outlined in the Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP), a plan that takes a bigger look at the Sugar Land’s available water supply and infrastructure, which City Council approved in 2019. Projects include expansion of the City’s Surface Water Treatment Plant, adding water conservation programs, expanding reclaimed water facilities and implementing advanced metering infrastructure throughout the City.
“We have a lot of improvements that we need to do,” said Jennifer Brown, the City of Sugar Land’s Director of Finance. “About $130 million of utility projects are included in the five-year CIP, many were identified in the IWRP, which plans for the long-term water needs of the city … With that plan, we know what to build, and we’ve got to build (up income) over time, rather than waiting until 2025 when we have to meet the mandate.”
In addition to meeting the mandate, the City is looking to be proactive when it comes to subsidence, the settling or shrinking of land because of compaction of the ground below it. A conversion to the use of alternative or non-groundwater sources would decrease the likelihood of subsidence around Sugar Land, according to the IWRP.
How did the City arrive at an increase of $10 per month?
Staff has been working on a multi-year Strategic Project since FY20 to complete a comprehensive utility rate study. The study looks at the comprehensive cost of water – including all fixed and variable expenditures, which results in the development of a tool that will allow the City to forecast long range revenue needs and develop a rate structure designed to maintain City service level standards. The project is currently in its final phase- which is development of various policies.
Phase I focused on computing the current cost of service for the different facets of water utilities including surface water, potable water service and wastewater. Staff presented a five-year plan to City Council as part of the FY21 budget process.
Based on feedback from City Council, staff worked with a consultant to develop a plan that is based around a targeted monthly increase of $10 to the average residential bill for three years and then maintenance increases annually after that. This structure was reviewed by the rate consultant and is feasible in the long term. The rates, however, are set on an annual basis, and changes to CIP or operating costs or other conditions can influence future rates.
What happens now?
The projects must be done in phases, so residents should expect to see increases to their utility rate bill over the next several years to create the appropriate revenue stream needed to successfully convert the City to 60% use of alternative or non-groundwater supply. The City Council can only set rates one year at a time, but overall, the City Council is on board with the financial plan as outlined in the utility rate study. Since the projects are funded from Utility Revenue Bonds, the revenues must be in place at least a year ahead of the City needing to issue the bonds to fund the projects.
The actual implementation of projects is also expected to go on past 2025 to support projected growth.
Because the utility rate system is self-supporting and doesn’t rely on property taxes, these rate increases do not need to go before voters for approval. They do, however, need City Council approval. The 2022 increases were approved by City Council in September 2021 as part of the budget adoption process.
Any future changes to rates can be expected to be considered as part of the annual budget process with City Council voting in September on the rate ordinance.
If you still have questions about your water bill, please contact the Treasury Department by calling 281-275-2750 or emailing Treasury@sugarlandtx.gov. You may also contact the 311 Contact Center by dialing 311 or calling 281-275-2900.
Glossary of terms
Subsidence – the settling or shrinking of the land surface due to compaction of the ground below it and can result in increased potential for localized flooding
Groundwater – water that lives deep underground, usually contained in or by a layer of rock or soil
Surface water – think of this as lake, stream and river water. The City of Sugar Land uses the Surface Water Treatment Plant to pump water out of these sources and clean it for public use and consumption.
Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP) – a comprehensive plan created to meet increasing groundwater regulations by 2025