Every day, roughly 6 billion gallons of drinking water disappears — unbilled and often unaccounted for — even as cities and counties encourage residents to conserve the natural resource. Much of the water leaks out through broken, aging pipes and faulty joints. In other cases, broken meters cause billing errors. Consumer theft accounts for some of the lost water.
Local governments lose an estimated $800 million each year on water that disappears before it reaches the tap or is unaccounted for. An absence of universal standards to measure water loss or how much is acceptable has kept many agencies from attacking the problem aggressively and systematically. While some communities are ignoring the problem, other water industry professionals are changing the way they are addressing the issue.
Though other countries are working to control water loss, North America lags behind, according to the Denver-based American Water Works Association (AWWA). A 2003 report, authored by the association’s water loss committee, found that conservation in North America focused on the end user. Even though many American communities experienced droughts in the late 1990s and in 2000, “little emphasis has been placed on the need to motivate water suppliers to control their losses,” the committee says in its report.
The water loss committee, which includes water professionals, consultants, engineers and equipment manufacturers, set out to change that attitude. After years of studying the complex issue, committee members now are presenting their findings to receptive audiences of regulators and local government officials. The group is calling for defining water loss, creating standard methods of accounting for water loss, setting goals, conducting audits, providing incentives and enforcing policies.
The Philadelphia story
“There is growing attention now by many of the stakeholders,” says George Kunkel, chief of the Load Control Center at the Philadelphia Water Department. “There are methods and tools that did not exist before [that] have created opportunities to get a handle on losses.”
Concerns about water supply and rising costs have motivated some cities and counties to take a more serious look at water loss. Kunkel knew Philadelphia needed to rein in water loss, but when he started researching the problem more than a decade ago, he hardly knew where to start. Philadelphia’s system is one of the oldest in the nation, with some parts dating back to the 1800s.
“We looked to see what the industry [water loss] standards are and what’s state-of-the-art,” he says. “There was not a lot of interest industry-wide.”
Using data from Philadelphia and other cities, the AWWA’s water loss committee established an Infrastructure Leakage Index. The index represents the ratio of real water losses divided by the unavoidable annual real losses, or the amount of water officials recognize they will lose to inevitable small leaks. In 1999, Philadelphia scored 13.1 on the index, with the range from one to 14. In 2001, the city’s index was 12.7. Today, Philadelphia’s index is 11.9.
Philadelphia is in the midst of an arduous examination of its water delivery system. The first step was a water supply audit, which told city officials how much water was slipping away and where the system was failing. In five years, the city has recovered about 10.7 million gallons a day, saving it about $9.8 million. Over the past decade, Kunkel estimates the city has slashed leakage by one-third through pipeline replacement, better leak detection, faster repairs and more accurate billing.
He admits the city has a long way to go, but Kunkel is confident the department has a plan that makes sense. Philadelphia spends $25 million a year in pipeline replacement, but it is a pervasive myth that pipeline replacement is the only solution to stopping leaks, Kunkel says. Replacing old pipes is the most invasive and costly solution, and there may be other ways to effectively plug the leaks. For example, reducing water pressure is an inexpensive way to prevent costly main breaks. Cleaning and lining corroded pipes can extend their life.
Philadelphia officials are currently focusing on billing, faulty meter readings and suspicious accounts — those that show no water consumption. About one-third of such properties are vacant, but in many cases residents are using water — they just are not being billed for it. Often, residents have tampered with the meter, or the equipment has malfunctioned. “We never run out of accounts to investigate,” Kunkel says.
Philadelphia’s approach represents a major shift in how officials view water loss. For years, water authorities reported their loss in terms of a percentage. In 1957, a 15 percent rate of unaccounted-for water was acceptable. By 1996, the AWWA water loss committee concluded that “advances in technologies and expertise should make it possible to reduce lost and unaccounted-for water to less than 10 percent.”
Percents not always best
As the association continued to study the problem, it discovered that although stating water loss in terms of a percentage was good for comparisons, it was not necessarily useful in developing strategies. Instead, water professionals now believe volume and cost considerations are essential to making decisions about water loss. For example, a place with an abundant water supply, such as Alaska, would not benefit as much from controlling loss as a desert community, such as Nevada. By considering the economics of water loss, cities and counties move away from a “one size fits all” approach.
Most communities still cite their percentage of water loss, but the Infrastructure Leakage Index is a more valuable performance indicator, water professionals argue. The AWWA recommends aiming for an index of eight or less, although it acknowledges that some agencies may set a short-term, incremental goal higher than eight because of the monumental task of overhauling the system.
Dropping vague terminology is another aspect of the new thinking in water loss. For decades, water officials have tagged some water loss as accounted for because of known leaks. Unknown factors, such as undetected leaks, theft, broken meters and billing problems, were credited with unaccounted-for water losses.
In some cases, water that was lost but accounted for was regarded as less of a problem. And as industry standards of acceptable percentages changed, accounting methods changed accordingly. Many cities and counties managed to come in at just under the industry standard by juggling the numbers, according to the AWWA water loss committee. A loss is a loss, the committee reasoned, and dropped the unaccounted-for water term from all industry references.
Some communities have decided to invest in better technology to solve their water leak problems. Cincinnati had been performing surveys since the 1950s, comparing the water flowing into the district, night flow rates and metered consumptions. But that did not tell officials exactly where all the leaks were.
In 2002, the city switched to systematic acoustical testing to pinpoint leaks. The city also replaced outdated large meters, gaining further efficiency. Last year, Cincinnati began a four-year program to upgrade small meters to use radio-based technology.
The city is motivated by financial losses that accompany water leakage. “Because of the water loss and leakage in the system, we experience higher operating costs,” says Sheri Bush, a supervising engineer with Cincinnati. “We may not be capturing all of the revenue from the water that is sold.” Leaks also damage the city’s pavements, she says.
City officials considered the right economic balance to solve the city’s water loss problem. “Realizing it would not be cost effective to achieve zero percent water loss, Greater Cincinnati Water Works would like to reduce water loss to 12 percent of our treated water production,” Bush says.
Conservation key in Broward
Controlling water loss took on a new urgency in south Florida’s Broward County when supplies were stretched thin by extensive growth in the 1990s. With new homes needing water service, the county implemented a broad-based water conservation program.
Homeowners must water their lawns at night to reduce the amount of water evaporating. Builders are required to install low-flow appliances. Officials also go into the community, educating residents about drought-resistant plants.
As users have made sacrifices, the county has had to get serious about water leakage, says Chuck Flynn, operations manager for water and wastewater. “That is the fiscally responsible thing to do,” he says.
The county is spending millions of dollars to upgrade aging pipes and is funding the improvements through utility bonds. As in Philadelphia, Broward County’s use of newer pipes is just one of many solutions. The county’s hydrant flushing program helps ensure that equipment works efficiently.
Like Cincinnati, Broward County invested in an aggressive leak-detection program to find small leaks before they get out of control. Sound detectors sent through the pipes give an acoustic reading and identify the leaks’ exact locations.
The county also examines unusually high homeowners’ bills that might indicate a leak. The county investigates bill anomalies and makes the necessary repairs to fix leaks quickly, Flynn says.
Controlling loss has worked. Broward County has cut water leakage from about 20 percent in 1990 to about 10 percent today, Flynn says. That results in a savings of about $5,000 a day, based on a rate of $1.74 per 1,000 gallons.
Yet Flynn is still not satisfied. “We can always improve, and we will.”
Little political pressure
Because the public perceives water as an infinite resource, water agencies must work hard to convince customers to conserve it, Flynn says. “Water is really undervalued in the United States.” That is a primary reason so much water has been allowed to leak away without public outcry and why it has taken so long to attack the problem.
David Liston, project manager of water accountability for the Boston-based Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), says Boston got serious about water loss during a water shortage in the late 1980s. But getting the smaller, outlying communities to reel in water loss took longer.
Five years ago, the North Shore towns outside Boston found 524 gallons per minute leaking out of the pipes, according to a report by the Boston-based Boston Foundation. “The repair of these leaks will produce a reduction in water demand by 275 million gallons per year,” the report states. Liston says he is still trying to get smaller communities to regularly seek out and repair leaks.
Because budget cuts have made it hard for some cities to implement aggressive programs, the MWRA uses consultants to help smaller towns get a handle on their water loss. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” Liston says.
Cities are typically quick to repair visible leaks that spill onto the streets. But too many underground leaks go undetected, Liston says. “People are running around putting out fires, but these are hidden leaks, [and] because they can’t see the leaks, it’s not a political issue.”
Despite an absence of political pressure, cities and counties that have addressed their water losses see large benefits. Even small changes can result in financial savings and put agencies in a better position to cope with shrinking resources and increasing demands.
Patti Ghezzi is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.