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Plugging Pipes: One Piece of the Efficiency Puzzle

September 20, 2010

When it comes to water efficiency, there’s one big ball of wax that’s a major sub-topic all its own: the efficiency of our water infrastructure.

That’s what a recent locally-focused article from Jacksonville, FL – “To save water, Jacksonville utility to plug costly leaks” – is doing on the Georgia Water Wire. The Jacksonville-area water utility is getting aggressive this fall about finding the leaks in its water distribution system – something that’s been talked about a good bit in Metro Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia, but maybe not yet aggressively pursued by enough Georgia utilities to make a real difference in the realm of water supply.

This year’s Georgia Water Stewardship Act does require better recording of municipal utilities’ leak rates, but it doesn’t mandate the next step of reducing those leaks.

What’s the diff? In Jacksonville, about 10 percent of all the water in the system is lost – a not-insignificant amount. (Plus, keep in mind that they just might find a higher rate than 10 percent once they start looking in earnest.)

And in Metro Atlanta? The Metro North Georgia Water Planning District puts the loss rate at about 16 percent throughout the area: a sizable chunk, and enough water to be worth pursuing even if just for cost reasons alone, one would think.

Nationwide? “According to the U.S. Geological Survey,” says this excellent recent article from Stateline.org, “water main breaks result in the loss of up to 1.7 trillion gallons of clean water each year, at a cost of $2.6 billion.”

Okay, enough with the staggering stuff. Stateline’s next line is a gimme for those of us in Georgia: “That loss is an issue of increasing concern as regional water shortages become more common.” You said it.

In other words, the multi-faceted impetus that we in Georgia now have for using our water wisely ought, rightfully, to induce us to get more aggressive about leak detection and repair. After all, surely you’ve seen the other headlines about the possibility of a returning drought in 2011. No need for alarm at this stage, but shouldn’t we be increasing infrastructural efficiency for the long haul anyway?

-Ben Emanuel

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. DrinkMoreWater permalink
    September 20, 2010 6:36 pm

    A huge part of the problem is that many utilities don’t cover the true costs of operation, maintenance, repair, and replacement . The Stateline.org article hit this on the head:

    “At the heart of the problem is the fact that most cities and communities do not charge their customers rates high enough to cover the true cost of providing clean drinking water and removing wastewater. Among developed countries, the United States and Canada have by far the lowest rates for clean drinking water and sewerage.Yet despite a growing awareness that most U.S. water rates do not cover the costs of maintaining the infrastructure, most mayors are loathe to support unpopular water fee increases.”

    Or utilities shift water/sewer revenues to to other city departments.

    Both these actions lead to no funds available for the proactive steps needed.

    The Water Stewardship Act recognized the need to “Provide incentives for public water systems to use full cost accounting”. Folks should ask for this from their utilities.

    • garivernetwork permalink*
      September 21, 2010 7:47 am

      Good point, DrinkMore — it’s a widespread issue. I’ll also point out that American Rivers included “Price Water Right” among the nine key policies listed in its “Hidden Reservoir” report about water efficiency in the Southeast. Tiered conservation rate structures for water utilities, with high-volume customers paying a higher rate per gallon, should also go a long way toward recovering costs, if structured correctly for the particular utility.

      These infrastructure fixes are definitely not cheap or easy, but they make abundant sense for the long term, so it’s well worth attention to how to pay for them!

  2. DrinkMoreWater permalink
    September 21, 2010 5:20 pm

    1.Imposition of “conservation rates” can lead to revenue imbalance and cause greater harm than good.
    2. Without implementing full cost accounting any additional revenues will continue to be shifted away from where they are actually needed for the utility.
    3. Beneficial efficiency is a no-brainer. The fiscal benefit is key.
    4. Reservoirs are not inherently bad. They actually can cause greater flow to be available in the stream than a direct withdrawal.
    5. Georgia on average gets 50″ (over 4 feet!) of rain per year. That is a lot of water.

  3. Mac Hodell permalink
    November 22, 2010 5:48 pm

    The author rightly points out that the Water Stewardship Act requires utilities to improve their tracking and reporting of loss rates. Only then can one assess what the economic (ie, cost-effective) actions to take really are. The Metro North Ga estimated loss rate is just that- an estimate.

    To make good decisions, we need clear insight into which utilities are losing how much, where. Any mandates prior to this risk uneconomic leak detection/abatement.

    For the record, I support well-informed leak abatement efforts. But we should be realistic about just how little we really know right now.

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