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The storms and slightly cooler weather expected today could bring some relief, but consumers aren't finished with the summer's heat wave and drought.

Not if they pay electricity and water bills.

Monthly statements arriving in mailboxes now are reminding utility customers of the high cost of running air conditioning just about nonstop, and of watering parched lawns and gardens daily.

While consumers have started to notice a bump in what they owe, the biggest bills — those covering electricity and water usage this month — are weeks away.

"July is going to be higher than the rest of them," said Darnell Lee, whose most recent electric bill for $165 was almost triple what he paid two months earlier. And this latest statement included only power use through Independence Day, early in the heat wave.

Many consumers take the edge off high bills by going on monthly budget plans, though they'll eventually have to square away the costs of a spike in electricity use.

Lee, 76, has tried to keep his bills down by not watering the grass at his Spanish Lake home, and his wife, Mildred, now washes clothes just one day a week. The couple don't use their oven during the heat of the day, and they keep their thermostat at 79 or 80.

"That's comfortable if we are not moving around, cooking or washing," Darnell Lee said. "Even doing that, we still get high bills."

The high Wednesday was 107 degrees, edging a record of 106 for the date set in 1934 and marking the 16th day with temperatures of at least 100 degrees. The National Weather Service is forecasting a high in the mid-90s today, with a chance of showers and thunderstorms.

In Missouri, Ameren estimates that residential electricity use since June 1 is up 12 percent over the same period last year. Commercial and industrial customers haven't been hit as hard, in part because they already use so much electricity for everyday operations.

Across the Midwest, a new record for energy demand was set on Monday, with utility customers racking up 98,576 megawatts across an 11-state regional power grid. The previous record of 98,526 megawatts was established last July, according to Reuters.

The regional grid includes Ameren's service area in eastern Missouri and much of Southern Illinois.

Jerry Bravi of St. Peters wasn't as concerned about his most recent electricity bill. It was $150 — about 10 percent higher than normal during the summer — thanks to a high-efficiency air conditioner he installed a couple of years ago.

"We also got the sheet protection over the windows, so we invested in that," he said.

Candace and Keisha Leach say they haven't bothered to scrimp on electricity use.

"What can you do when it's this hot outside?" said Keisha Leach.

At their St. Charles apartment, which the sisters share with three children, the air conditioning kicks in at 65 degrees. Their most recent bill was $205, more than triple their usual bill of about $65.

Heat, and the air conditioning needed to ward it off, is only part of the problem. A drought has plagued much of the nation and has forced home gardeners here to increase watering.

Ann Dettmer, a spokeswoman for Missouri American Water, said residential water use generally doubles during the summer as customers switch on their sprinklers and fill their swimming pools.

Dettmer wouldn't release usage figures, but data from municipal water services suggest homeowners are using significantly more water than normal.

In St. Louis, where most residential customers get unlimited water for a flat rate, water usage so far this summer is up about 30 percent over the same period last year, said Curt Skouby, the city's water commissioner.

In Kirkwood, where the city provides both electric and water service, water usage has jumped so much that the city has asked residents to cut back. After the voluntary conservation request went out in early July, usage dropped.

"But it has been creeping back up," said Bill Bensing, the city's water director.

So far this month, Kirkwood homes and businesses have used, on average, about 6.4 million gallons of water a day. Last year, the July daily average was about 4.1 million gallons.

The increase will be reflected on monthly bills, but Kirkwood residents probably won't see the full impact until next month, when the bills for July usage arrive, Bensing said.

When consumers conserve water during the summer, usually only plants suffer. The consequences are bigger when it comes to cutting back on electricity, especially if it means shutting down air conditioning.

So far this year, 24 people have died of heat-related illness in the metro area.

Ameren says it would rather arrange late-payment plans for low-income customers than have them stop cooling their houses.

In Missouri, power companies are prohibited from disconnecting customers for nonpayment during the summer if the National Weather Service forecasts the next day to have a high temperature above 95 degrees or a heat index topping 105.

"Honestly, I can't tell you the last time we did a disconnect," said Mark Mueller, managing supervisor for credit and collections for Ameren Missouri.

Mueller said consumers shouldn't expect Ameren to carry out mass disconnections when the temperature drops. "The fact is, customers' bills will be very large," Mueller said, adding that Ameren can't provide help to customers who don't request it. "Our message is this: Please call us early, before it gets too late."

Consumers who need help paying their electricity bills also can request help from the United Way of Greater St. Louis by dialing 211 from a land line or calling 1-800-427-4626. Since June 1, the charity has received about 6,000 such requests — about 900 more than during the same period last year, said spokeswoman Carrie Zukoski. "There are resources out there, so we don't want people to turn off their air conditioning," she said.

Denise Hollinshed, Susan Weich and Jeffrey Tomich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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