Paying more to lose water by the minute

The staggering amount of water lost in the Great Lakes and nationwide is essentially only visible to the public during extreme events, like a water main break. Photo: Flickr/CC.

The staggering amount of water lost in the Great Lakes and nationwide is essentially only visible to the public during extreme events, like a water main break. Photo: Flickr/CC.

As your water rates creep higher, nearly six billion gallons of water that you paid to treat is lost nationwide every day.

In the Great Lakes region, leaky pipes lose 66.5 billion gallons of water annually. That’s enough to supply the yearly needs of the residents of Wyoming, Vermont and South Dakota combined – or submerge Manhattan.

And chances are, your water utility doesn’t even know.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology, an urban sustainability nonprofit organization in Chicago, recently looked at water loss nationwide and in the Great Lakes with their report, “The Case for Fixing the Leaks.”

There are several hurdles to solving the problem, said Harriet Festing, the group’s director. First, there’s the task of educating the public – and the water utilities.

“The public can’t see the problem so they aren’t arguing for it,” she said. “They’re only seeing their rates increase. And the utilities are constantly firefighting the serious leaks and having their resources stripped away, so they can’t focus on investment.”

Compiling the center’s report was a challenge, Festing said. It meant seeking data from water utilities without standardized water auditing practices – or often, no auditing practices at all.

“We’ve had to estimate some things and we don’t have as much information as we’d like. That’s what’s really concerning,” she said. “The problem is much likely bigger than what we see.”

The information that is there, though, is alarming.

Under sidewalks, miles of dilapidated pipes leak 14 percent to 18 percent of the nation’s daily water. The cost for water service in 2010 was about 90 percent more than it was in 1996 – rising much faster than inflation.

Once the public and water utilities realize the severity of water loss, Festing said, the next step is to create a standard auditing policy to compare water at its source with how much is delivered to the customer.

The good news? There’s already free assistance.

“There is free software already available from the American Water Works Association,” Festing said. “We’ve been exploring federal mandates for auditing, but the biggest issue is that most water utilities don’t know that the auditing program exists.”

Auditing works – and works well. One of the few success stories outlined in the report is that of the Philadelphia Water Department, which has audited water loss for more than 20 years. Since 2000, it has saved more than $15 million.

Once auditing indicates the source of a potential infrastructure problem like a leaky pipe, a simple acoustic test can usually pinpoint the precise area. Photo: Flickr/CC.

Once auditing indicates the source of a potential infrastructure problem like a leaky pipe, a simple acoustic test can usually pinpoint the precise area. Photo: Flickr/CC.

 

“Philadelphia took an interest in water loss about 20 years ago, and that’s when we started conducting auditing and developing a plan to address any problems,”

said George Kunkel, the department’s water efficiency program manager.

About half of U.S. states require water loss auditing to some degree. But without standardized definitions and programs, the data gets convoluted, according to the report.

Kunkel said his department often looks to Georgia as an example of auditing success. Tennessee and Georgia require water loss auditing from all utilities using the American Water Works Association program.

And although auditing isn’t perfect, Kunkel says, it’s still the best option.

“You’re never going to have a loss-free system,” he said. “But the important thing is to track it, have an idea of what you’re losing and focus on the losses in a targeted fashion.”

Kunkel says he also supports a federal mandate if it means utilities will start auditing quickly.

“For most water utilities, it’s going to take about three to five years to build a reliable data set,” he said. “And the longer you wait, the more problems you have with your infrastructure.”

It’s a commitment of time, effort and initial investment, but one that absolutely has to be done, said Festing.

“It makes environmental sense, business sense and public sense,” Festing said. “We’ve yet to meet with a service provider or anyone that thought solving this problem was a bad idea. It’s just about building momentum and education.”

About Becky McKendry

Becky McKendry is an undergraduate senior at Michigan State University studying journalism with a concentration in editorial reporting. With almost eight years of professional publishing experience, she has previously worked for a variety of media outlets - as a production assistant for the WKAR radio news program "Current State," a sports columnist for the Marshalltown Chronicle, an interviewer for author Chuck Palahniuk's official website and more. Currently, she also works as Assistant Bureau Chief for the newswire Capital News Service, with a focus on covering the civil rights and human services, primarily for the Metro Detroit and Lansing areas.

  • frank

    The 65 billion number above might be low. Detroit’s(DWSD)water system wastes 35 billion gallons a year by itself.

    According to this 2004 DWSD Task C: An Evaluation of Unaccounted-for Water report:

    The DWSD pumps 32 Billion cubic feet of water per year

    5 Billion cubic feet (37 billion gallons or 16%) of “unaccounted-for water (UFW)” are lost annually. [This is the same amount of water used by 16 medium sized coal plants in a year]

    Leakage accounts for much of UFW along with water main breaks, inaccurate meters, fire –hydrant use, and others)

    The DWSD system has 3,432 Miles of water pipes [This is more than the distance between San Diego, California and Bangor, Maine.]

    DWSD has replaced an average of 13 miles of pipe annually. Approximately, 1,950 miles of pipe are older than 75 years and should be replaced. [Note, 1,950 miles divided by 13 miles/yr. = 150 years]
    http://www.dwsd.org/downloads_n/about_dwsd/masterplan_freshwater/Task_C_UFW.pdf