CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Stop wasting water." It is a phrase most of us likely heard at some point in our youth. But now, as an adult working in the water and wastewater industries for 28 years, water and wastewater are figuratively what I live and breathe.
In its front-page special investigation published on Sept. 1, the Sunday Gazette-Mail highlighted the statewide problem of treated water being lost underground due to aging, leaky water infrastructure. Here at West Virginia American Water -- the state's largest water utility, serving one out of every three West Virginians -- our team tackles this issue daily in every facet of our operations.
Once potable water leaves one of our nine water treatment plants, approximately 28 percent of it is lost, primarily due to leakage, somewhere within our 3,350-mile network of underground pipes before it reaches customers' water meters. To put that distance in perspective, if we laid our water mains end-to-end, they would stretch from Miami, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska. Nationwide, water infrastructure is 30 times the length of the interstate highway system, and the water leaked through these systems every day could supply the entire state of California.
Much of our water and wastewater infrastructure in West Virginia, as well as nationally, was installed in the first half of the 20th century or just after World War II. In the oldest parts of Charleston, Huntington and other West Virginia cities, pipes more than 100 years old are still in use to provide reliable drinking water to residents and businesses 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Now well into the 21st century, much of our water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than $335 billion is needed to replace aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years. In its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers grades both water and wastewater infrastructure at a "D" level. In West Virginia alone, the report cites $1 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs and $3 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.
So what is West Virginia American Water doing to reduce this large percentage of water loss and improve our water infrastructure? Our employees are working hard every day to provide value to customers by operating as efficiently as possible at the lowest cost, and water loss is an area where efforts must balance between the costs of water production and the costs to reduce loss.
Our strategies to minimize water losses focus on leak prevention, pressure management, leak detection, metering programs, district metering zones, accounting for un-metered usages, pipeline management and replacement. In recent years, our company has continued to increase its capital investment in water main replacement projects -- tripling the amount of main we replaced annually from 2010 to 2013.
In the first half of 2013, we repaired 1,678 water leaks and manually surveyed 1,438 miles of water main for leaks -- detecting and repairing 306 non-surfacing leaks. Last year, we manually surveyed 2,308 miles of water main, surveyed 3,025 miles of main through permanently installed leak detection methods, repaired 3,274 leaks and replaced 35,000 feet of water main. This year, we are on target to replace 85,000 feet (16 miles) of antiquated water mains and have 83,000 feet (15.7 miles) of water main replacement projects scheduled for 2014.
Of all infrastructure types, water is the most irreplaceable and fundamental to life and health. Among utilities, our product is the only one you ingest. Because it is essential to our quality of life, we cannot afford to jeopardize it by failing to reinvest in the treatment facilities, storage tanks, pumping stations, fire hydrants and related equipment that serve our communities. Delaying and deferring maintenance means higher costs, more water service disruptions, health and safety risks and millions of dollars in waste of both water and energy resources.
Private water companies like West Virginia American Water are leading the way in building and rehabilitating tomorrow's water infrastructure, but there is more work to be done. To raise awareness of this critical need and how we are addressing it, we are tasked with educating our customers on the true cost of supplying clean, reliable drinking water in a state faced by rugged terrain, limited population growth and a lower customer density than many other states. More than one-third of each monthly water bill payment a customer makes to West Virginia American Water is reinvested back into system upgrades to water treatment facilities, pipelines, storage tanks, raw water intakes and pumping stations to ensure that drinking water is delivered reliably around the clock and meets all regulatory standards. The remainder is used to cover daily operating expenses, such as energy, chemicals and labor, in addition to the taxes that our company must pay.
When you turn on the tap, it is easy to see what your water bill buys. What is not as easy to see is what it takes to deliver that water to your home or business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at a cost of about a penny per gallon. Reducing the amount of this valuable natural resource wasted in transport is a continuous goal -- one that can only be addressed by vigorous effort and ongoing investment in our water systems. We hope our customers and our communities also recognize the need, because no one wants to see the tap run dry.
McIntyre is president of West Virginia American Water.