ZEPHYRHILLS — White socks turn brown or orange in the wash. Water filters require replacement every two weeks, and the tap water smells of sulphur. Customers of Aqua Utilities say they have lived with these foul water problems for years, but their frustration spiked last year when their water bills doubled.
Some of the customers in Zephyr Shores and American Condominium Parks spend hundreds of dollars a month on bottled water, or they have installed their own home filtration systems.
And now they're paying the highest water rates in Pasco County. The typical Zephyr Shores customer pays $65 a month for water, plus $77 for wastewater, according to the state Public Service Commission.
Aqua Utilities Florida president Jack Lihvarcik said complaints about the taste, color or odor of the water are "secondary" problems. Testing shows the water complies with drinking water standards and does not contain harmful levels of any contaminant, he said.
"The water is safe to drink," Aqua Utilities spokeswoman Gretchen Toner said.
That's little comfort to residents like Peggy Welch, who replaces her water filters roughly every two weeks. New filters cost almost $30 each.
"You can tell differences in the feel of the water, the smell of the water, and (how) it discolors your bathtub," said Welch, who has lived in her home for five years.
"We'd like (Aqua Utilities Florida) to drink it," said Dave Bussey, of American Condominium Parks.
He and other residents have joined Flow Florida, a water consumer advocacy group that is urging elected officials to examine the situation.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has taken up the cause, working to lobby the PSC to "realize the way (the prices) hit consumers was very unfair" and to revisit the rate structure.
Fasano, who spent more than a decade battling another water provider, Aloha Utilities, over water quality complaints, is working on a utilities Lemon Law. The measure would require utilities to have a "reasonable and responsible product" and leave them open to daily fines if they do not respond to the PSC.
Fasano and Flow Florida are also fighting a bill that would require the PSC to approve requested rate increases. Fasano said the utilities lobbying for that law "should be ashamed of themselves."
Lihvarcik said the company asked for the rate increase for its systems across the state last year to recover the cost of already purchased improvements. He pointed to a new radio frequency meter system that "eliminates all issues with meter reading" disparities and quality.
The PSC grouped Aqua Utilities' systems into three groups, based on the costs associated with running each system.
The lowest-cost systems, including Jasmine Lakes in Port Richey, fell under one set of rates. Others fell into an intermediate category.
And the highest-cost systems — including Zephyr Shores in east Pasco and Palm Terrace in Port Richey — were grouped together with the highest rates. Zephyr Shores customers who paid $32 a month for their water two years ago now pay an average of $65 a month, the PSC said.
The new rates went into effect April 1, 2009.
Lihvarcik said consolidating the rates helps spread the maintenance costs across a larger group of customers. He said that should decrease the financial burden on residents of smaller water systems when problems arise.
Lihvarcik said Aqua Utilities has applied for a state permit to put a sequestering agent in the water to neutralize some of the metallic ions. That should reduce the smell and discoloration in the water, he said.
He said the equipment has already been installed and he expects to get the clearance to use it soon.