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Leaky pipes account for loss of more than 30% of W.Va. water supply

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly one-quarter of the water that leaves West Virginia's water plants, about 17 billion gallons in 2012, disappears somewhere, entirely unaccounted for, before it ever reaches a faucet.

The water vanishes somewhere in a system of overflowing tanks and a subterranean maze of leaky pipes and gaskets.

Nearly 65 percent of water utilities in the state are not compliant with the West Virginia Public Service Commission's standards for acceptable amounts of water loss, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of annual reports submitted to the PSC.

More than 30 percent of the water that leaves water plants is lost, although utilities know where about 6 percent of the lost water goes -- things like identified leaks, pipe flushing and fire departments.

The lost water, both known and "unaccounted for" is almost certainly costing West Virginians millions of dollars, although there's no way to know exactly how much. At the same time, upgrades to aging water systems -- some pipes are 75 to 100 years old -- that would reduce water loss, also would be expensive.

PSC standards require that utilities' "unaccounted for" lost water is no more than 15 percent of the total water pumped. It's a balancing act, though, to determine if the money leaking out of the pipes is worth the substantial costs of fixing the pipes.

"If you're in an area that has very difficult topography and it's a very old system, obviously it's going to be extremely expensive to get down to 15 percent for some of those utilities," said Susan Small, communications director for the PSC. "Big system overhauls cost something, too. It's up to the utility to determine what the cost effectiveness of each repair that they want to make is."

As part of the annual report they submit to the PSC, water utilities across West Virginia are required to submit data that show how much water they pump and where it goes.

If a utility is above that 15 percent "unaccounted for" threshold, PSC rules require it to outline some sort of remedial action.

"Each utility shall determine either by actual measurement or by estimate the amount of 'unaccounted for water' . . . and report, separately to the Commission in its annual report," PSC rules state. "Said report shall contain the proposed remedial actions to be taken if unaccounted for water is in excess of 15 percent."

Very few of the state's utilities are in compliance with these rules.

Small said the PSC doesn't normally deal too much with the unaccounted-for water rates unless utilities ask to increase their rates.

"When a utility would come and file for a rate increase, they would be asked to explain if they had an excess of unaccounted-for water," Small said. "It's all done on a case-by-case basis -- there's no usual or always -- but it's up to the utility to conform with our rules and to supply safe and reasonably priced drinking water."

There are 395 water utilities in West Virginia, according to PSC records.

In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended in June 2012, 309 water utilities submitted annual reports to the PSC, which are available online. Of those 309 utilities, only 260 submitted reports with usable data and only 95 of those were in compliance with the PSC's guidelines on unaccounted-for water.

Among those noncompliant utilities is the state's largest water utility, West Virginia American Water Co. West Virginia American, a private company, pumps more than 18 billion gallons of water per year, five times more than the state's second-largest water utility, the Morgantown Utility Board.

West Virginia American serves 288 communities, including Charleston and Huntington, in 15 counties in West Virginia. It used about 43 million kilowatt hours of electricity to pump water in 2012, according to PSC records.

West Virginia American's rate of unaccounted-for water, at 28 percent, is well above the state's rate and nearly double what the PSC considers acceptable.

Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American, pointed to the need to weigh the cost of lost water versus the cost of making repairs.

"Our company is committed to providing value to our customers by operating as efficiently as possible at the lowest cost," Jordan wrote in an email, "and water loss is an area where efforts must balance between costs of water production and costs to reduce loss."

Jordan said the company surveyed more than 2,300 miles of water mains in 2012 and repaired more than 3,200 leaks.

She said West Virginia American takes specific steps to try to lower its unaccounted-for rate.

Its workers survey for leaks, they focus on how best to manage water pressure throughout the system and they work on "district metering areas," trying to develop better ways to locate meters to help them find out where leaks are.

Privately owned companies fare slightly worse than utilities owned by municipalities and districts. The privately owned utilities that submitted usable data could not account for about 28 percent of their water, while, for districts and municipalities, the rate was about 22 percent.

The PSC requires noncompliant utilities to offer proposed solutions to their lost-water problems, but almost no utilities list solutions on their annual reports, making it difficult to know exactly what is wrong with each system.

The Marshall County Public Service District, which cannot account for 26 percent of its water, is one of very few utilities that did try to explain its lost-water rate and propose solutions. Its explanation is representative of the myriad challenges facing the state's rural water systems.

"The main reason for the high percentage of unaccounted-for water is that the system has a high-pressure problem. To correct this, a pressure-relief valve was installed at the pump station, which releases water when pressure exceeds operating standards," the report says. "Also, because of the terrain and the rural location of the water system, there has always been a problem and continues to be a problem in the foreseeable future in regards to the breaks and leaks of the main water lines.

"Furthermore, there have been a significant number of water flushings due to [the town of] McMechen's inability to properly treat the water, which is often brown in color. The brown poses no health risk, as per analysis by the health department. However, due to customer complaints, the mains are flushed more frequently to help alleviate the problem."

Glenville, in Gilmer County, has one of the most efficient water departments in the state. Glenville pumped about 240 million gallons of water in 2012, and it sold almost all of it. Only 2.4 percent of its water was lost and unaccounted for, one of the lowest rates in the state.

However, even success stories can be deceiving.

Glenville sells about 65 percent of its water to the Gilmer County Public Service District, which uses the vast majority of that water for the federal prison in Gilmer County.

The prison is about two miles away, but the PSD's meter, the point at which the water is no longer Glenville's responsibility, is only 10 feet outside the building, according to Freeman Nicholson, the water manager for Glenville.

"We don't have a newer water system," Nicholson said. "The PSD meter is just really close to the water plant."

Gilmer County's rate of lost water, while well below the state average, is still more than triple that of Glenville.

In Matewan, 75 percent of the water that leaves the plant is lost and unaccounted for, the eighth-highest rate in West Virginia, according to PSC records.

The problem there is not just an old water system, but stolen water, as well.

The town caught one person who had stolen water meters from neighbors three different times, so he was getting free water while the neighbors weren't getting any water.

Matewan has taken steps to address stolen water.

"We've painted the tops of the fire hydrants, to know if somebody's moving the top of the valve," said Tim Collins, the town's water supervisor. "There's been a lot more people complaining, saying that their neighbors are getting free water, so we go and put on locks and spend more money."

However, like in water systems all over the state, leaks are probably responsible for most of the lost water.

"You'll go up there and fix a bunch of leaks, then you'll have leaks on this end of town. You fix those, and then you'll have some other leaks," Collins said. "It's almost like the pipes are not able to handle the pressure. Stuff's getting old; we just need to upgrade and get some better pipe in there, and the town's been working on that."          

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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