It is always drought season inside Jacqueline Price’s house. The tap flows twice a day, to clean dishes. The toilet swallows less than a dozen bowlfuls from breakfast to bedtime. The only evidence of unrationed water is in brown, crackling ceiling stains, consequences of a decrepit roof.

Yet according to her water meter, Price should be swimming to get her mail. During the first half of 2002 her house, located in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast D.C., consumed an average of 1,450 gallons a day. January brought her two bills: one for $724, another for $527. The next bill, in June, was a monster of $1,339. This puzzled Price, who does not use a dishwasher, cleans her clothes at a laundromat, and has running water on only one floor.

“I’d thought I’d done everything humanly possible to conserve water,” says Price. “I’d have to have the water running all day long, every day, in order to use this much.”

Although the Washington Post has linked the District’s new remote-controlled meters to recent complaints of inaccurate readings, Price receives high bills without the assistance of technology. Libby Lawson, director of public affairs for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), says Price’s home is considered commercial property because it previously comprised two apartments. As such, it will not receive a new meter for some time.

When a person’s water bill doubles in a short time, Lawson says, WASA marks the account for special attention. Because WASA requires the property owner to investigate unusual water usage, “special attention” in Price’s case amounted to a letter notifying her of the invisible flood. Price, who, as a handicapped Section 8 tenant, has difficulty paying most bills, passed the news to her landlady, Nwanganga Shields.

Shields contacted John C. Flood Plumbing and Heating, whose plumbers replaced leaking toilet and faucet parts and a water heater. They found no reason for the house’s gigantic thirst. They did not, says Flood plumber Mike Kendall, perform an underground inspection, a standard procedure for high-billing houses that involves hunching around in crawl spaces with sound amplifiers. Kendall says Shields did not ask for the service.

One purpose of an underground inspection is to see whether a pipe from the street has ruptured. But such a leak typically transforms a yard into swampland, says Kendall. Unless the land conceals some hydrologic anomaly, a leak should have caused Price’s house to sink into the soil like some small Atlantis. But her yard today looks solid and dry.

Without a ruptured pipe, says plumber Frankey Grayton—D.C.’s self-styled “Professor of Plumbing”—Price would “have to be washing cars, having six, seven people taking showers twice a day, to get that kind of bill.” This is evidently not the case: Price has only two children. Price’s neighbors, a family of three adults and five children, last year were consuming one quarter of her immense intake.

Having dispatched one fleet of plumbers to the house, Shields now believes it is someone else’s responsibility to untangle the mess. “My plumber has been to that building,” she says. “There is nothing wrong [with the pipes].”

For her part, Price, who has arthritis in both hips and uses a cane to walk, paid off a $2,860 bill with the help of neighborhood churches. She refuses to pay another. “It’s the dead of winter. I’m handicapped. There’s no way I’m going to be without water,” she says. “But all I know is this: I’m not paying that bill.”

Lawson says that WASA will send investigators within a week, as long as Price can schedule an appointment.

Last November, Price sent an SOS to D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange’s office. There was no response. An Orange staffer, who did not wish to be identified, says the person who was working on Price’s problem recently quit the office. A ready replacement, the staffer says, “is one thing that most employers don’t have in place.”

Estell Mathis Lloyd, executive assistant for Orange, says she will research the house’s strange, spongelike quality. “We will do for Mrs. Price what we do to all our constituents,” she says. CP