Water leaks – obvious or hidden – can cause spikes in usage and high bills

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Water leaks can wreak havoc on one’s home and finances. Here’s how to handle a sudden increase in water charges and where to go for help in Lawrence.

Hillary Jones barely had enough hot water for a shower in February, so she contacted the home’s owner/landlord. A plumber was dispatched to diagnose the problem. Must be a fault with the hot water heater, Jones thought. A simple fix.


Instead, it turned into a major water event spawned by a water leak in the wall between her toddler’s bedroom and a bathroom. The water leak created a huge mess, including high water bills.

Jones received a water bill for $421 about the same time plumbing professionals found the hidden leak. The City of Lawrence had charged her for 33,000 gallons of water the previous month. That’s more than four times the average use for a family of four like Jones’.

Jones, a single mom and disabled veteran using Section 8 vouchers at the time, panicked. She knew from dealing with multiple water leaks at the home in 2022 and again this spring that she’d likely be stuck with the charges even though all of the leaks were hidden, resulting in surprise water bills through no fault of her own.

The city offers a water adjustment for high usage water charges for underground and hidden leaks, but only once every 365 days. Jones had already used the program for a previous leak, so she turned instead to a social service agency for help, and the water bills were paid.

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The city has made water leak billing adjustments totaling nearly $195,000 for 429 customers since the beginning of 2021, according to statistics provided by Kristy Webb, utility billing manager. The overall average amount abated per customer during that period was $453.

The program doesn’t cover obvious leaks such as frozen pipes or an appliance that’s gone kaput. It’s aimed to help with leaks underground or hidden, like inside the wall at Jones’ former rental, or a slab. It’s separate from the city’s Utility Assistance Program, which is supported by community donations.

“Say it’s a toilet leak or a sink leak, visible. We don’t do adjustments for that,” Webb said. “If it’s hidden and there’s no way to see that water’s running somewhere, those are the leaks that we’re talking about adjusting.”

Contributed Kristy Webb

Customers can apply to the program by completing a leak adjustment form. A billing specialist reviews the requests, Webb said.

Before approving a request, however, usage for the billing address must have returned to normal. That usually takes two to three billing cycles, Webb said. In addition, the customer must provide proof a repair was completed. If a customer rents, that means they would obtain proof from their landlord. Webb acknowledged that can sometimes delay the process and pose a challenge for some renters.

“If the tenant’s having problems with the landlord, getting that from that landlord, we will try to reach out to that landlord too,” Webb said. “Ultimately it can become a tenant-landlord dispute, which we won’t get too much in the middle of, but we will definitely reach out to that landlord if, or at least attempt, if that will help.”

Webb said leaks that have been brought to the department’s attention but are obviously not being repaired by a landlord can be flagged for possible violation of City of Lawrence code after a tenant vacates.

Residential customers unexpectedly billed for high usage can also look into an adjustment to their Winter Quarterly Average, sometimes referred to as WQA, Webb said. That number correlates to sewer charges and is located in the upper left corner of your water bill under account information.

“We look at the amount of water that was billed in December, January and February,” Webb said. “We take an average of that, and then we use that amount, and we put a cap on your sewer the rest of the year.”

A leak — hidden or obvious during that period — could cause water usage to soar and set a high winter quarter rate, Webb said. Customers can reach out for an adjustment to that number, too, even if they’re ineligible for a bill adjustment.

“That’s something that people, maybe we don’t give them an adjustment, but they can definitely reach out to us for a reconsideration of their winter quarter,” Webb said. “There’s a leak we didn’t adjust, but they feel like we shouldn’t be using that volume.”

Customers can submit questions or request a leak adjustment form by contacting the Utility Billing Department at 785-832-7878 or via email at

Webb, who has worked in city utility billing for seven years, said although the department can’t adjust a water bill for a running toilet, there are ways to get ahead of this common problem. Sometimes the water runs so quietly it goes unnoticed but can waste hundreds of gallons of water a day.

“That can cause a really high water bill and I almost just want to shout it from the top of the building about, ‘Hey, make sure your toilet is not running,’ because especially in, we’re a college town,” Webb said. “They can end up with some really high water bills and a running toilet is one thing we do not adjust. It’s not in our leak adjustment policy to adjust, and so those are painful.”

The utility billing department’s Frequently Asked Questions advises this method to check for a running toilet, also known as a silent leak: “Put several drops of dark food coloring in the tank of your toilet. If dye appears in the bowl, replace the valve seal ball and/or the flapper at the bottom of the tank. These should be replaced at least every couple of years.”

YouTube also features myriad videos on how to perform the test. You can even use colored drink mix if you don’t have food coloring on hand.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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