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Water utility focusing on stopping leaks in aging city lines

Thursday, June 18, 2009 by Bill McCann

With 3,600 miles of pipes connected to 200,000 customers over a 538-square mile service area, the Austin water system is a complex maze where some of the water is bound to get lost before it reaches homes, schools and businesses. In fact, a city audit report recently estimated that the total water loss from the system in fiscal year 2007 was 5.3 billion gallons, or about 11 percent of the water that the city treated.

Because of the enormous potential of conserving water by reducing losses, Austin Water Utility officials say curbing water loss is a top priority. As a result, the utility plans to ramp up its efforts in several areas over the coming year. This includes tripling funding to replace old cast-iron water pipes in and around the central city, stepping up efforts to detect leaks in large water mains, and increasing vigilance by city employees and the public to reduce water theft at fire hydrants.

“There is no doubt that water loss has to be one of our top areas of focus,” said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility. “Water loss affects all of our operations, from metering and repair and replacement of lines to water conservation and the operation of the treatment plants.”

Reducing water loss not only will help the utility recoup revenues, Meszaros said, it will help the city meet its stated goal, set in 2006, of reducing water use by 1 percent a year for 10 years.

Water loss is treated water that is not authorized for use, but gets out of the system. Sometimes it gets out when a pipe breaks and water gushes into the street. Other times the leak can bubble below ground and can go undetected for long periods. Sometimes the loss is a direct financial one for the utility, such as inaccurate meters or when a water thief thinks one of the 25,000 city-maintained hydrants in the city system is his own personal trough.

In late April, the City Auditor’s office issued a report on water loss from the city water distribution system. The report was generally favorable to the water utility and the work it has been doing to measure and minimize water loss. The report contained a list of 23 recommendations for improvement, however, including those related to best practices for calculating loss, meter testing, setting priorities for fixing waterline breaks, water theft, and continued use of leak-detection services. In response, the utility concurred with all of the recommendations, indicating that measures were under way, scheduled or planned.

In their analysis, the auditors estimated total water loss of 5.3 billion gallons for fiscal year 2007, the most recent data available. Most of that loss, almost 3.6 billion gallons, came from leaks in the system. This included about 698 million gallons from reported leaks and 2.9 billion gallons from unreported loss. Faulty metering accounted for more than 1.5 billion gallons, and unauthorized consumption, or theft, was estimated at about 124 million gallons.

The utility has a number of specific programs under way to address those problems, including responding faster to fix reported leaks and finding and fixing underground leaks that are not reported, Meszaros said. As an example, the city has a contract with a private firm that uses sonar equipment to listen for and find leaks that are not visible on the surface. The leak detectors try to cover about one-third of the system yearly, primarily the small-diameter water mains, he said. 

Next year, the utility plans to budget $1million for a first-time program to detect leaks and assess the condition of large water mains, he said. Repairs or replacements would cost additional dollars.

Meanwhile, Meszaros says a program with perhaps the most potential for reducing water loss is to replace the half-century old cast-iron water mains in the central city, where 250 miles of these pipes account for 85 percent of the leaks and breaks.

“These pipes are still capable of delivering good quality water, but they are the most susceptible to breaks,” he said.

The utility has spent an average of $3 million to $5 million a year replacing the old pipes in recent years, Meszaros said. “We would like to kick up this figure beginning next fiscal year to $10 million to $15 million.”

These and other capital improvement projects for the utility will come at a price for customers in the form of proposed rate increases of about 4.5 percent for the combined water and wastewater system, he said. However, all of the funding comes from the utility and does not impact the already strapped General Fund.

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