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Report Identifies Water Industry Concerns

Image of a water main break that closed the westbound lanes of 44th Street between Division Avenue and U.S. 131 in Wyoming, Michigan, on January 4
A water main break closed the westbound lanes of 44th Street between Division Avenue and U.S. 131 in Wyoming, Michigan, on January 4. A new survey of water industry professionals indicates that aging water and sewer infrastructure is a primary concern. Associated Press

Survey finds that nonrevenue water is underreported in an industry struggling to address aging infrastructure and manage costs.

July 16, 2013—A new survey of water industry professionals reveals that aging water and sewer infrastructure is their primary concern, followed closely by managing capital and operational costs. Respondents listed water loss as 10th on their list of concerns, but appear to be greatly underestimating the extent of the problem and its impact on their bottom line.

Those are some of the key findings of 2013 Strategic Directions in the U.S. Water Industry, published in June by Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kansas. The firm surveyed 397 water industry professionals between March 18 and April 7 of this year to collect data for the report. The majority of respondents represent either municipal departments or municipal utility commissions and are responsible for both water and wastewater systems.

The report paints a picture of an industry struggling with aging infrastructure and constrained budgets. A staggering 74.2 percent of respondents in the Northeast—which claims some of the oldest infrastructure in the nation—are replacing less than 1 percent of their collection and distribution systems annually.

Nearly 30 percent of respondents reported that their current rate structure doesn’t provide sufficient funding for capital improvements. Another 10.8 percent of respondents report that their rate structures don’t even fully cover costs of service.

“Historically, people have expected their water bills to be relatively inexpensive,” says Joseph P. Mantua, P.E., a client director in Black & Veatch’s Water Division. “There is really a need to change that mind-set. If we are going to maintain and build our systems like they should be, the public is going to have to recognize the true value of water and there are going to be some significant increases. Water is a critical resource and the cost is going to go up.”

Mantua says that in analyzing the survey and developing the report, he and the other coauthors were somewhat surprised by the self-reported levels of nonrevenue water—water lost primarily via leakage or inaccurate metering. Approximately 24 percent of respondents reported non-revenue water levels of less than 5 percent. An additional 44.2 percent identified the level between 5 and 15 percent. Another 17.4 percent responded “I don’t know.”

The national average for nonrevenue water is approximately 20 percent, according to the report. Older systems in the Northeast and Midwest can experience levels above 30 percent.

“So much of this leakage is underground and out of sight, it can be really difficult to estimate what the actual losses are,” Mantua says. “In some cases the utilities just don’t have the practices or techniques in place to really have a good handle on it.”

Another issue that leads to underestimating nonrevenue water is inaccurate data provided by meters that aren’t properly calibrated or aren’t operating accurately.

“If your meters aren’t working correctly, you might be underbilling people, and you are not collecting revenue that you should be collecting,” Mantua says. “Just taking care of your meters could be a huge [step] in bringing in more revenue to be able to use for other things.”

Mantua says the results of the survey point to the value of both a detailed condition assessment for utilities and an asset management plan. The survey indicates that asset management plans—detailed, data-driven plans to guide system operations, maintenance, and replacement—are a high priority in the industry.

Asset-management plans enable utilities to use condition assessment data to project future deterioration and remaining life of system components, anticipating and planning for infrastructure replacement. The plans also assist with inventory control, operating efficiency, and risk management.

Respondents were asked to rate their understanding and implementation of asset management now and to anticipate their level in three years. Approximately 72 percent reported either a basic or good understanding of asset management today. Nearly that same percentage expect to either have a very good or excellent understanding in three years, and with fully implemented asset management plans.

“I think most utilities are realizing things are changing. It’s a new landscape. The future of utilities is going to be different. They are just going to have to adapt and change,” Mantua says.

“More and more are coming to the conclusion that this is the new normal and we have to implement asset management,” he adds. “We have to protect our assets better and have a better handle on how we are spending our money. I don’t think an upturn in the economy is going to change that. The industry is going to have to adapt.”

The report is available online to read.

In its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which was published in March, ASCE assigned a grade of D to the nation’s drinking water infrastructure and noted that “at the dawn of the 21st century much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion according to the American Water Works Association.”



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