When Water Goes Down the Tubes |
By Eric Lipton
Two of the region's largest utilities lose track of 66 million gallons of water on average each day – more than a fifth of what they supply – even as area residents are told to conserve during one of this century's worst droughts.
The missing water costs residents and businesses in the District and Prince George's and Montgomery counties millions of dollars each year. Extra water drawn from the Potomac River, which was running last month at one-third its normal flow, increases the strain on aquatic life. And line leaks – frequently left unfixed for weeks or months in the District – damage streets and sidewalks.
The District's rate of 24 percent for "unbilled" water is the worst among the region's three major water utilities, which together serve 3 million people.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, serving Prince George's and Montgomery counties, has a 20 percent rate for unbilled water, compared with a national average of 16 percent. The Fairfax County Water Authority has a better record, failing to bill for only 9.7 percent.
WSSC troubles can be traced, in part, to the 1980 boom years when it disproportionately invested in extending service to new homes instead of maintaining older lines, critics say. But the utility has taken concrete steps in recent years to cut water loss.
D.C. officials, meanwhile, have known about the severe wasted water problem for at least a decade. But even now they acknowledge that efforts to fix it are moving slowly – and are far from complete.
"I am not at all comfortable or complacent about [the 24 percent unbilled] number," said D.C. chief water engineer Michael S. Marcotte, who had set 20 percent loss as a goal for this year – a mark he acknowledges won't be met. "It affects the bottom line and it is a matter of environmental stewardship. It is absolutely a matter of highest priority."
Every water utility, whether it serves aging cities or freshly minted suburbs, loses a share of the water it sends into distribution lines. Some – which utilities call unbilled water because they receive no payment for it – goes to legitimate uses such as firefighting or water-line maintenance. The challenge is to minimize unwanted losses by detecting leaks, installing accurate meters, quickly repairing pipes and cracking down on water theft or waste.
Other U.S. cities with aging pipelines – namely Philadelphia and Cleveland – have higher water-loss rates than the District. But several more, including New York, Chicago and Denver, have aggressive water-loss prevention efforts that they credit with dramatically lowering lost water.
The District's neglect has been so severe at times that it creates life-threatening conditions. On Reno Road NW in January, a 47-year-old woman suffered permanent brain damage when her car slammed into a tree after sliding on ice that police agreed was apparently created by a leaking city water line.
Beth Keifer walks her dogs along Columbia Road in Adams-Morgan, where a line went unrepaired for months and left ice in winter. "It's a hazard," she said. "It is an obvious waste of everyone's money. It just does not make sense."
Water in, Water Out
Utilities track how much water they lose starting with two measures: how much water treatment plants produce and how much, according to billing records, comes out of taps. In the District, an average of 135 million gallons is sent into the water system each day by the Army Corps of Engineers, which treats water taken from the Potomac. But the District bills for only about 102 million gallons a day, translating into the 24 percent gap.
At WSSC, which produces an average of about 166 million gallons a day, a 20 percent unbilled rate means another 33 million gallons of uncompensated flow. The 66 million gallons of unbilled water is enough to fill about 1.32 million bathtubs each day or serve about 265,000 households.
Smaller water providers that maintain their own lines, including Arlington (which gets water from the Army Corps of Engineers), and Alexandria and parts of Prince William County (which draw from Fairfax), each has unbilled amounts slightly below the national average, a recent report shows.
If WSSC and the District cut unbilled shares to about 16 percent, they could together conserve or be paid for 18 million gallons each day, worth about $10 million each year.
Ultimately, the price tag is probably higher because an unknown portion of missing water makes its way to the District's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant, which serves Washington and suburban Maryland. Eliminating 20 million gallons of flow to Blue Plains – which the city hopes to accomplish by cutting wasted drinking water and other unnecessary flows – would prevent the need for a $200 million plant expansion and about $2 million in other annual costs, officials said.
Maryland's Building Bind
WSSC long maintained a reputation as the gold standard of water and sewer utilities, staying way ahead of state and federal environmental regulations for water treatment and sewage disposal.
With enthusiasm, critics say, came excess. A $40 million headquarters opened in Laurel in 1991, complete with $250,000 in sculptures and paintings, a $46,000 WSSC stainless steel seal and a $200,000 man-made lake. The spending continued.
To accommodate the unprecedented housing boom in the counties between 1985 and 1992, the utility spent $737 million to expand services and comply with environmental regulations. By 1993, WSSC had $1.7 billion of debt and some of the country's highest water and sewer rates.
Most disturbing, said Lewis M. Helm, a former WSSC commissioner, is that with so much money spent on new residents and buffing WSSC's image, too little went to maintenance.
In the mid-1990s, WSSC's aging cast-iron pipes began, for some customers, to deliver water the color of beef broth. Water main breaks skyrocketed, resulting in property damage and the loss of millions of gallons. The share of unbilled water began to rise.
"They have not been aggressive," said Helm, a former federal official and chairman at WSSC during the mid-'90s. "It is a terrible amount of water escaping and people are paying for it."
WSSC Budget Director Thomas Street said he is not prepared to attribute the 20 percent unbilled rate to inadequate maintenance. But he agrees the agency may have been slow to focus on water loss. "In a perfect world, we should have looked at it earlier, but you had only so many resources."
Starting in the mid-'90s, WSSC expanded spending on line maintenance to about $28 million a year. More recently, it has begun to focus on cutting unbilled water.
WSSC is under particular pressure this year because drought conditions in Maryland are more severe than elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic, leading Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to impose water restrictions.
A nearly complete study at WSSC will determine where the 33 million gallons a day in unbilled water are going. WSSC officials already suspect most avoidable losses are due to metering inaccuracies or leaks on private property before water reaches meters. Based on the study aimed at focusing on loss-prevention efforts, WSSC now asserts that 16.7 percent of its water is unaccounted for because it can explain where a piece of the 20 percent worth of unbilled water goes.
WSSC's water theft squad in the last two years also has stepped up activity and issued 134 citations, including one to a Largo restaurant operating without a water meter and another to a Suitland laundry that had tampered with its meter. Retroactive bills to those firms for a total of 8.2 million gallons of water were worth $43,500.
"We have to be able to get paid for what we produce or our rates will remain among the highest in the country," said Marjorie L. Johnson, a spokeswoman for WSSC.
Ignoring a Warning
The District faced no sudden demand for new water lines. In fact, while the population in Montgomery and Prince George's counties exploded in the 1980s, the District lost on average about 3,500 people a year.
The population drop helped expose the District's water-loss problem. A 1989 city memo noted that water consumption was rising "despite a declining resident population. . . . However, there has been no action to reduce what we believe to be the major contributor to our high flow, water wastage."
Instead of confronting the problem, the District water agency made it worse. Broken valves were left unrepaired. Antiquated meters were not replaced. Reservoirs and storage tanks were not cleaned. Sediment was allowed to build in water mains. Steel pipes were left to rust. And at times, a massive backlog of leaks accumulated. "There was about 15 to 20 years of dysfunction," said Gregory Welter of O'Brien and Gere Engineers Inc., of Syracuse, which has worked on the city's system.
The neglect exacerbated the water loss. Malfunctioning meters mean incorrect billings. Steel mains – most installed in the 1940s and 1950s – have in many cases corroded, leaving hundreds of pinhole-size leaks.
Weather, of course, plays a major role in breaks. Rapid temperature fluctuations – particularly in winter – cause soil contractions that can snap lines, particularly if they are cast-iron, like a large portion of those in the District and suburban Maryland. So far this year, there have been 333 reported breaks in D.C. mains and another 387 leaks reported in smaller service lines, which link water mains to homes. That is more than any year this decade.
The Leak Squads
No utility can stop water main breaks. But cities across the country have shown how to minimize water loss. New York City, which has 6,600 miles of water lines and delivers an average of 1.3 billion gallons a day, is one of many large cities with a full-time squad that searches for leaks.
Using the equivalent of a plumber's stethoscope, workers listen to water flowing through mains. The intense hissing created by escaping water allows crews to find leaks even if they are draining unnoticed into sewer lines or other underground areas.
In the last year, more than 300 previously undiscovered leaks were found in New York, said Douglas S. Greeley, a deputy commissioner at the city's Department of Environmental Protection, who estimated that the crews saved the city about 9.5 million gallons a day.
"Water is a gift from God, so you have to use it wisely," Greeley said.
Chicago, Denver, Boston and WSSC have full-time leak detection crews, an investment officials say is critical to water conservation. Even in Philadelphia – which still has a unbilled-water percentage higher than the District's – losses fell from 133 million gallons a day in 1994 to 87 million gallons a day last year, partly due to aggressive leak detection.
"Imagine if you ran a widget factory and you found out that one-third of the widgets fell off the truck on their way to the market," said George A. Kunkel, a Philadelphia water system administrator. "You would be alarmed."
The District's Water and Sewer Authority has no leak-detection staff. Three years ago, during the District's financial crisis, the city even discontinued a decades-long practice of hiring a consultant to do an annual "wasted water" survey. The last report, in 1996 by a Columbia firm, reviewed 160 miles of water lines or about 12 percent of the system.
That limited look found 35 previously undiscovered leaks, spewing an estimated 1.4 million gallons a day. Eliminating those losses would save $347,000 in unneeded water purchases, the consultant's report said.
No formal detection effort has been completed in years. D.C. officials say a survey is planned. For the time being, they must wait for residents to call in.
Fast Flow, Slow Repairs
Inconsistent leak-detection isn't the only reason for large water losses in the District. Illegally opened fire hydrants each can expel 2 million gallons within 24 hours. Also, the Water and Sewer Authority is unusually slow at fixing lines.
The repair log had 110 cases as of Aug. 9. Twenty-six water mains, 55 service lines and 29 valves were awaiting repair, and 90 of those cases were at least 10 days old.
A 16-inch water line at Sargent Road and Delafield Place NE, for example, leaked for at least eight months before it was recently repaired. "It was like a heavy rain, 24 hours a day, for month after month," said Eleanora Galasso, who lives at the corner and repeatedly called in to complain.
George J. Papadopoulos, chief of the D.C. water authority's water distribution division, said that total water being lost to backlogged leaks is only a small percentage of the District's unbilled total.
"I would like to not have any backlog," he said. "I hope we are able to achieve that. But we are not there yet."
Boston water officials said broken mains are fixed within 24 hours, and smaller service lines are repaired within a week. At WSSC, only one of the 12 leaks on record as of last week was holding over from before August. And in Fairfax County, officials could find only one case in the last three years in which a leak extended beyond two days.
"We fix things as they break," said James A. Warfield Jr., Fairfax County Water Authority's executive director.
While residents wait for repairs, small leaks sometimes turn into major, damaging breaks. A leak in a main this month at Good Hope and Naylor roads SE, for example, had been pinpointed and the pipe excavated. Two days later – before repairs began – the pipe burst. By the time water was shut off, the sidewalk and part of the road had caved in.
"All hell broke loose," Papadopoulos said. Top officials have recognized since at least this year that they need to dramatically cut the repairs backlog. Pressure peaked in January, when the car driven by Lynne Landsberg, a rabbi and Jewish community leader, hit the 12-foot ice patch on Reno Road NW apparently caused by a water line leak and was in a coma for nearly two months.
She has since been released from the hospital but will never fully recover, her attorney said.
D.C. council members expressed outrage after the accident, which occurred 11 days after the leak was reported.
"Why haven't you dealt with the backlog?" D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) asked Jerry N. Johnson, general manager of the D.C. water authority, in January at a council meeting.
Johnson gave his agency a "D" for performance and vowed to eliminate the backlog by the end of February. Progress was made: The number of cases awaiting repair fell from 344 broken lines and valves in early January to 47 by late February. But since then, the list has climbed to the 110 as of earlier this month.
"You want to end the summer and fall with no backlog at all, because in the winter you expect more breaks," Welter, the water consultant, said. "Last year, I hate to say it, but the difficulty they had was foreseeable because they [did not do] that."
The District's water and sewer authority shows signs of addressing these problems.
It plans to invest $12 million over the next three years to replace most of the 130,000 residential and business meters and install equipment that will allow them to be read more accurately and automatically, without door-to-door workers.
The city also is spending more than $15 million this year to clean and line some cast-iron mains and additional money to replace excessively corroded sections of steel mains, both of which should reduce leaks and breaks and improve water quality.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he welcomes the improvements. "Citywide there are hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars worth of infrastructure work needed," said Peggy Armstrong, his press secretary. "Now that we have stabilized our finances, it is time to begin making the necessary investments."
City water officials say they are committed to doing the job.
"We want to get as much water as we put into the pipes to our customers," said Marcotte, the city water and sewer chief engineer. "Unfortunately, it is not an overnight fix."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company