Guest Commentary: The Ultimate Water Efficiency Challenge

April 17, 2015

In some respects, it’s the ultimate water efficiency challenge—how do you plug the (largely unseen) holes in thousands and thousands of miles of buried water mains? That’s the challenge faced by utility staff all across America. They know their systems lose water—after all, all water distribution systems lose water. But how much water should systems lose—10%, 15%, 20%? And, more importantly, what’s the best way to prevent billions of gallons of expensive, treated water from literally going down the drain?

A new website from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Cutting Our Losses: State Policies to Track and Reduce Leakage form Public Water Systems, answers the second question by highlighting how a number of states and utilities are using water loss accounting to address this problem, enabling states and utilities to learn from each other. The site challenges states to do better, by posting grades based on the strength of state policies for reporting water losses accurately and setting targets for water loss reduction. It makes it easy for visitors to the site to see which states are leading the way in reporting and reducing water losses, and which ones are not yet engaged. The site even has a section—8 Questions for Every Water Utility—to enable consumers to ask key questions about how their utility is addressing water loss.

What Is Water Loss Accounting?
Water loss accounting is a cost-effective, systematic approach that helps utilities detect, locate, and correct leaks. Accounting for and controlling water loss not only helps utilities better manage their infrastructure and control costs, but it also increases system resiliency, reduces weather-related risks, protects water resources, and shields residents from excessive utility rate increases. Excessive water losses place additional burdens on water sources and also cast doubt upon a community’s ability to manage its financial and physical assets. That last point is increasingly critical as states and local governments struggle to maintain and upgrade aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure a “D” on its 2013 report card. EPA estimates community water systems will need approximately $384.2 billion over the next 20 years to continue to provide safe drinking water.

One tool, developed by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), costs states and utilities next to nothing. AWWA developed standard methods and terminology to perform water audits and to assist water utilities in tracking their distribution system losses, including free software available for any utility to download.

These tools help utilities identify real (physical) and apparent (water that is used but not billed) losses of water from their systems. Real losses include costs to a utility from the additional energy and chemical usage required to treat lost water. Apparent losses represent lost revenue as the water is consumed but not otherwise paid for or billed.

When a water system accurately identifies these real and apparent losses through a water loss audit program, it can begin to strategically implement controls to reduce them. For example, water loss programs can help utilities identify water losses that are economically recoverable and that are cost-effective to identify and eliminate. EPA quotes a study that estimates the average water loss in a system is 16%, and that up to 75% of that is recoverable.

Which States Are Leading the Way?
States across the country are taking a new interest in the loss of drinking water from public water systems and adopting sensible policies for communities to report and reduce these losses.

Water scarcity is one factor behind these new state policies, but by no means the only one. Water main breaks are typically accompanied by costly emergency repairs, street closings, traffic disruptions, loss of water pressure, curtailment of service, and boil-water advisories. Damage to vehicles and private property is common. Consumers bear these costs both indirectly and directly, through disruption and delay, water bills, taxes, and in some cases, uncompensated damages. States are asked to help finance system upgrades, but none have sufficient resources to simply replace all leaky pipes. Thus, the need for a more objective accounting of water losses and a more strategic understanding of loss reduction approaches is gaining attention across the country.

The states currently leading this new wave of smart water reporting policy include Georgia, Tennessee, and California. Each requires annual water loss reports from local water suppliers using the AWWA standardized methodology. Each state has also tailored its approach to reflect its unique challenges and opportunities.

Georgia is the only state to go beyond requiring utilities to perform and submit annual water loss audits using the AWWA standard methodology—the state also requires third-party validation of water loss audit data. This is a critical step, ensuring that interventions to improve water systems are based on accurate and reliable audit results. Georgia also took advantage of set-asides allowed in the federal Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds to pay for technical assistance for both large and small systems.

In Tennessee, each utility submits its annual water audit to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury as part of its annual audited financial statement (an approach that other states, including New York, could consider adopting—see below).

In California, the state estimates that about 350,000 acre-feet of treated drinking water currently goes to waste each year, but could be cost-effectively saved—a volume that is nearly twice the entire annual water use of San Diego, the state’s second largest city. California is facing acute water shortages after the driest year in its recorded history. Water loss accounting is one approach that the state is taking to measure, manage, and eliminate the unnoticed and unnecessary waste of water.

There are promising water auditing developments in other states as well. In May 2014, Illinois EPA (IEPA) convened an advisory committee to shape and oversee the implementation of a statewide effort to better understand the scope of water loss, which should result in requirements for utilities to undertake water loss control programs using the AWWA methodology. As a first step, IEPA is partnering with the Illinois chapter of AWWA and the Illinois Rural Water Association to provide training in water loss control to utilities. To date, more than 120 utilities have been trained. The agency is also exploring how to leverage its Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (a key learning from Georgia) to provide interested utilities with the technical assistance that some will need to address water loss issues.

As we identified best practice leaders among the states, we also identified opportunities to better align state research and policies. For example, in New York, only rudimentary water loss auditing and reporting is required. But the State Comptroller has conducted dozens of audits of municipal water systems showing massive water losses—and resulting financial losses. A 2002 New York State Comptroller’s report on six municipal water utilities found significant water loss from leaky pipes, and very poor controls on measuring that or fixing the problems. The report’s top recommendation was “Municipal officials [should] perform water audits at least annually to strengthen accountability over their water resources and to assist in identifying cost-effective methods to reduce waste, minimize unaccounted-for water and decrease system demand.” Between 2009 and 2014, the Comptroller’s office analyzed water loss in connection with audits of more than two dozen municipalities, finding a consistent pattern of very high rates of water loss (using a relatively crude calculation method). Seventy-five percent of utilities experienced losses of more than 20%; half or more had losses over 40%. The Comptroller’s recommendations in these audits have consistently included the need for utilities to maintain better water loss data and improve auditing methods.

What’s Next?
Water efficiency is a key strategy to address the dual challenges of a changing climate and our nation’s aging infrastructure. Nothing is more fundamental to a state or utilities’ water efficiency strategy than water loss accounting. At NRDC, we will continue to work with our partners to highlight the benefits of water loss accounting and advocate with individual states for wider adoption of this important practice. We’ll also frequently update Cutting Our Losses to track the adoption of new state policies, provide links to additional water audits, and highlight the latest developments in the field of water loss auditing and control.

About the Author

Karen Hobbs

Karen Hobbs is a NRDC senior water policy analyst.

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