JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
City workers were removing a nonfunctioning water meter from a vacant house that was for sale when they could hear the shower running upstairs.
“It was like, ‘What’s going on?’” said Steve Salka, director of utilities. “There was no way water could go through this gap (without the meter).”
The city workers, who got access to the house from a real estate agent, confronted a property owner.
“This guy walks out of the shower,” Salka said. “He’s upset, ‘What are you doing with my meter?’ He was mad.”
But it was the city with cause for indignation because the homeowner is suspected of cheating Durango out of thousands of gallons of water since 2008 by bypassing the meter with an extra pipe. The case has been referred to the city attorney for possible litigation.
People apparently will go to extremes for a freebie.
“Try to understand the mentality: You would come back to an empty house to take a shower? That’s kind of strange, isn’t it?” Salka said.
Durango, which is Basque for water town, has a new sheriff to look after its precious resource.
Because the city has been clamping down on creative water works – catching six residents and one business for bypassing their meters with extra plumbing – billing is already up 1.5 million gallons for the year as of September, which is worth about $10,000 to $15,000 to the city water budget.
In the flow of things, it’s not a lot of water or money as the city distributes about a billion gallons a year and the city’s annual water budget is nearly $5 million.
But Salka, a former naval commander responsible for maintaining aircraft carriers, believes in accountability and fairness.
Cheating “hurts everybody,” he said.
When Salka started work in June, he learned Durango could not account for about a million gallons of water every year. He did not believe leaks could be solely responsible for the losses because otherwise the city would have a sinkhole or swamp somewhere.
Abuses were pretty easy to spot, such as a lush green lawn at a home where the resident is paying for a minimal amount of water every month.
One does not have to be a master plumber to get free water, either.
“We know people are cheating,” City Manager Ron LeBlanc said. “Their water line is coming into the basement or crawl space. They’re (putting) in a bypass around the meter.”
Abuses were not limited to residential plumbing.
Over the summer, police patrolled industrial areas suspected of unlawful taps of water hydrants. Telltale signs were indications of “water hammers,” or the pressure-induced damage to pipes caused by the stress of quickly releasing and shutting off water hydrants.
Salka believes people have been getting way with the thievery for years. He understands the mentality: People will get out of paying a bill if they can.
Like Elliot Ness going after Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago, Salka has deemed his team of seven water meter-checking employees the “Untouchables” for busting illegal water schemes.
Joe Esquibel, a commercial water-meter technician, on Tuesday descended into a manhole behind the Gaslight movie theater to tag the meters for the block of businesses.
To keep everyone honest, water meters in Durango are going the way of the bears, at least the local bears in a wildlife study. They’re all getting tagged with serial numbers. The plastic tags are wrapped around the base of the meter so the plumbing system cannot be tampered without removing the tags first.
So far, a quarter of city meters have gotten the tag.
“No one is supposed to be touching the meter anyway,” Salka said.
Property owners caught cheating often blame their “irrigation guy” or plumber, but rarely fess up themselves.
“They know what they’re doing is wrong,” Salka said. “We’re going to put a stop to it.”