Wasting water

California water utilities don’t know (or even have to know) how much their piping leaks.

There’s plenty of good news lately on the California drought. Californians are going above and beyond the state’s water-savings goals. Citizens decreased total water use by 31.3 percent in July, well past the mark set by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year to cut urban water use by 25 percent. Highlighting the savings, the state’s public and private water suppliers published a list revealing which cities were the most successful savers. Leading stars included Menlo Park, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

“San Francisco is achieving 17 percent of cumulative savings,” said Max Gomberg, manager of climate and conservation at the State Water Board Office of Research, Planning and Performance, in a news report. “That’s a real success story, and I definitely encourage people to look at their conservation campaign. It’s quite edgy. Some of it you might even call R-rated.”

San Francisco's campaign included a number of racy slogans, including "Nozzle Your Hose: Limit outdoor watering" and "Gardens Gone Wild: Use native, water-efficient plants."

That’s no surprise from the City by the Bay. However, not to be outdone, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California began promoting a list of “Songs For Five Minute Showers” that could be easily streamed from Pandora and the Spanish-language site Uforia. 

“Someone can pick their favorite song from the list, press play, turn on the shower and finish before the song ends,” said Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger. 

The Pandora list includes hits ranging from “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival to “Purple Rain,” by Prince, to “Waterfalls,” by TLC and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon & Garfunkel.

No conservation here

So, it may be hard to fathom that California water utilities don’t seem to have a clue how much water they’re wasting transporting what Californians are so diligently conserving as they face the state’s worst drought in 1,500 years.

That’s the conclusion of a research report done by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. 

“It appears that most agencies don’t think of minimizing leaks and breaks as a conservation responsibility despite the cost and scarcity of water in California,” said Madelyn Glickfield, director the UCLA Water Resource Group, and one of the report’s co-authors. “States such as Georgia, Washington and Texas actively encourage and train water agencies in conducting water system audits, but not California.”

The researchers surveyed 10 water agencies in Los Angeles County who were guaranteed confidentiality – this after another 10 didn’t take the researchers up on the offer at all. The county relies on more than 100 water agencies, both public and private, to supply potable water.
Some of report the lowlights follow. Six agencies didn’t distinguish between water leaks and unbilled or unauthorized water use.

Four agencies that did measure leaks reported the water losses at 3-4 percent. Researchers basically didn’t believe this “improbably low percentage.” The researchers mentioned that Israel and Australia, two country’s most lauded for using sophisticated technology to police stringent water conservation measures, indicate that 10 percent is the likely minimum leakage rate.

Only three out of 10 retailers used leak detection technology. Just six had a program to replace a certain amount of pipe each year as part of a regular maintenance schedule, but the researchers figured it would take between 100 and 330 years for those schedules to include every pipe.

In general, large public agencies and privately owned utilities did best at handling leaks, and were more likely to use best practices to maintain piping and water storage systems. On the other hand, small public and private agencies earned lower marks on such procedures. Researchers said that, in many cases, these players appeared to lack the resources to tackle such problems and might benefit from pooling resources.

Above all, researchers said the agencies relied on a vague, possibly misleading measure of the percentage of water loss rather than a concrete and better understood metric of quantity. On this last  point, the American Water Works Association used to recommend utilities set a maximum 10 percent benchmark for what’s known in utility parlance as “unaccounted for” or “nonrevenue” water. The trade group has since stopped recommending a percentage benchmark and now encourages utilities to conduct individual water-loss audits. (However, utilities still may use such a category for legitimate procedures such as water used to fight fires or to flush hydrants.)

“In summary, California water regulations should aim at recommending crucial best management practices, ensuring accurate and verifiable water loss monitoring and prescribing an effective water loss metric and maximum acceptable standard as a roadmap for water retailers,” the report recommended.
The situation may not be that much different in other parts of the state that the researchers did not venture. Sacramento’s Department of Utilities General Manager Rob Roscoe told the Sacramento Bee after the report was publicized that he estimated that they lost 10 percent of their water through leaks, but admitted, “We don’t know exactly where we are until we’re fully metered.”

Lax oversight

While all this news sounded bad enough to us, if the agencies were looking for an easy out for letting this happen, state regulators readily gave them one. California does not require any annual, careful monitoring of these vital pipelines. Consequently, as the report reminds us, not many do.

About the only regulations on the books, according to the researchers, were requests on losses from utilities with more than 3,000 connections – and then only every five years. That may be all changing thanks to legislation sponsored by state Sen. Lois Wolk , a Democrat who represents the 3rd district, an area north of San Francisco largely situated inside Sonoma and Yolo counties.

On September 8, Bill 555 was sent to the governor following a 38-0 vote in the senate. If signed into law, all water suppliers in California would have to conduct an annual water loss audit and submit the results to the Department of Water Resources for public review. Reportedly, the utilities would have to use audit methods adopted by the American Water Works Association. The legislation also requires the State Water Resources Control Board to develop performance standards to minimize water loss in the distribution systems. 

“Given the drought we are facing today,” Wolk said in a press release, “we must ensure that water agencies are identifying and taking all cost-effective measure to reduce water loss in their distribution systems. It’s estimated that 40 percent of the 870,000 acre-feet of urban water lost to leaks would be cost-effectively recovered by detecting and repairing leaks.”

One acre-foot is basically enough to supply a family household for a year.

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