Fixing the Leaks

Getting water loss under control will take dedication, support and a big investment.

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No one cries when thousands of gallons of treated water leak out of a transmission main several feet below their daily lives, but far too many complain when their water utility needs to raise rates or add fees to pay for infrastructure improvements.

Conveyance systems are the lifeblood of the water and wastewater industry. Much like our own blood, it's easy to take it for granted and just assume it will keep pumping.

In July, The Bergen Record of Bergen County, N.J., ran a story by staff writer James M. O'Neill detailing the treated water lost annually by the state's water utilities. Clearly New Jersey has a serious problem, but it's shared by utilities across the United States: Aging infrastructure is failing and significant investments are required.

O'Neill's story said that United Water, North Jersey's largest water supplier, could not account for 26 percent, or 10.6 billion gallons, of the water it treated and pumped in 2011. The Borough of Ho-Ho-Kus reportedly couldn't account for 33 percent. And a 2009 state audit found that a staggering 45 percent of the drinking water pumped in the City of Camden was unaccounted.

The remedies are not cheap: The U.S. EPA estimates the repair, rehabilitation and replacement of New Jersey's water infrastructure will require a $4.7 billion investment. Nationwide, the EPA puts those costs at $350 billion over the next 20 years.

Still, there are water utilities setting good examples. The Philadelphia Water Department's concerted efforts to reduce water system leaks are producing good results. The utility, profiled in this issue, maintains 3,159 miles of water mains from 6 to 93 inches. The average age of mains is 68 years, and the city claims the oldest active piping in the country, dating back to 1822.

The department fields a 20-person team dedicated to detecting water main leaks, covering approximately 1,000 miles of line each year in leak listening surveys, so that the system is scanned, on average, once every three years.

All told, the PWD repaired 954 water main breaks and over 2,500 leaks in 2011. Between 2000 and 2011, the program showed an economic benefit of more than $16 million.

The Public Water Supply District No. 1 of Ralls County, Mo., also profiled in this issue, reports great success in reducing their own water losses.

The water district purchases and distributes 450,000 gpd to 6,300 residents in eight communities and surrounding rural areas. Before 2006, the district lost 40 million gallons per year. Unable to find certified operators and qualified staff to address the problems, the board of directors hired Alliance Water Services in 2001.

From 2004 to present, water losses dropped from 27 percent to 10 percent through aggressive meter change-outs and leak detection programs that culminated in two major pipe replacement projects totaling $5.375 million. The operations team ran accountability audits, improved system maintenance and safety, and computerized billing, collections and financial reporting. In 2012, the district earned the System of the Year Award from the Missouri Water and Wastewater Conference Northeast Section for its achievements.

Our infrastructure needs work, but it's not a hopeless situation, as Philadelphia and Ralls County clearly prove. The key is formulating a good plan, getting the backing of municipal officials, and being dedicated to seeing the plan through.

I hope the Philadelphia and Ralls County stories can provide a bit of optimism and inspiration. They are great examples of what well-run utilities can do.

Enjoy this month's issue.



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