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A sea of drinking water lost between treatment, tap

Monday, July 15, 2002

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Second of two articles in a continuing series about the Pittsburgh region's malfunctioning water and sewer systems.
Remember when that old but dependable car you'd been driving for years started having mechanical problems?

A water main break near Fairhaven United Methodist Church in the Overbrook section of the city sent water streaming across the parking lot and flooded parts of the church just before Christmas 2001. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

You'd have the car repaired, gritting your teeth as you paid the bill, all the while wondering which tunnel you'd be in when the next breakdown came. You knew that eventually the repair costs would match or overtake a new car payment and it would be time to visit the local dealer. The tricky part was knowing when.

But what if your car broke down once a day? Or even five to six times a day?

That's exactly what's facing most fresh water suppliers in this region, where water main and service line breaks are as common as potholes, but nowhere near as easy to find or fix.

Just since Memorial Day, Pittsburgh residents in Brighton Heights, Banksville, Hays, Shadyside, East Carnegie and Ingram have seen major water main breaks in their neighborhoods that have damaged property and sometimes sent rivers of treated drinking water down the drain.

In nearly every instance, crews for Pennsylvania-American Water Co. and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority responded quickly, repairing the breaks with minimal inconvenience to neighbors.

It comes with practice. For those who manage water supply systems, water main breaks are as much a part of the work week as coffee breaks.

  More about water

The water system can be taken for granted, until it goes bad close to home

Online chart:
Lost water

Previous story:

Pipe Dreams: Sewage problems run deep in region


Last year, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority recorded 226 water main breaks and 251 service line breaks (service lines are the pipes from the street curb to the water tap, and the homeowner is responsible for repairs) in its 1,200 miles of pipe. That's nearly 500 repairs in 365 days. The 750-mile West View Water Authority system had 325 water main breaks in 2000, and was called to repair 308 service lines.

Pennsylvania-American, the area's largest and only privately held water company, would not say how often it has to repair breaks, but the Banksville, Hays, East Carnegie and Ingram ruptures were all in that system.

The cumulative effect of these breaks is that millions of gallons of treated drinking water -- 12 million gallons in the city alone each year -- get lost between the treatment plant and the customer's tap. It's called "unaccounted-for water" in the industry's parlance, but what it usually means is leaky pipes.

What gets lost

We in southwestern Pennsylvania are leakier than most. According to the American Water Works Association, water suppliers nationwide lose on average about 10 percent of the water they produce.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, by comparison, typically loses about 15 percent of its water production, although the figure briefly jumped to 25 percent in 1999.

Pennsylvania-American loses about 20 percent, the upper end of what's considered an acceptable range. Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority, serving 20 communities in the East, can't account for 20 to 25 percent of its water production. West View Water Authority, which provides water to most of the North Hills, spiked up to 24 percent in 2000, but is usually below 15 percent -- the best among the largest local suppliers.

In 1999, those four water suppliers together lost nearly 40 million gallons of treated drinking water every day. That's enough to fill 8 million office water coolers. And they are some of the region's more efficient suppliers.

Systems in Aleppo, Cheswick, Edgeworth and Findlay, for example, have regularly been unable to account for close to one-third of their water production in recent years.

"We've had several leak detection consultations done," said Howard Theis, manager for the Findlay Township Municipal Authority. "We've found some but we just can't pinpoint the major ones." Making it more painful is the fact that Findlay buys its water from Robinson Township, so those pipes might as well be leaking money.

Aleppo, with only about 1,400 customers, also buys its water, from Sewickley and West View. It uses about 185,000 gallons of water each day but consistently has lost about 30 percent of it.

Earlier this year, a water authority staff member noticed there were some unusual one-day spikes of 40,000 gallons on the main meter. As it turned out, some neighboring fire companies were practicing their firefighting techniques in an isolated area of the township a couple of times each week.

"It had been going on for 10 to 15 years and we didn't know about it. And here these poor people of Aleppo were paying for it," said Ernie Tucci, chairman of the Aleppo Water Authority. That has since stopped, and Tucci expects the change will alleviate Aleppo's lost water problem.

A national problem

Because lost water is measured by comparing the output from water plants with the amount recorded on meters at homes and businesses, there can be other reasons for the loss figures than leaky pipes.

Slow meters can falsely underestimate the water being used, and an unusual number of fires can consume a lot of water that doesn't get measured at meters.

And not all breaks can be traced to aging pipes. Western Pennsylvania, with its wicked freeze-thaw cycle, can torque pipes to the breaking point. The mineral content of the water or the ground also can play a part, along with the pipe material.

Pipes that chronically leak or burst open are the primary cause of water loss, and it happens often enough that a key national group last year sounded a general alarm, saying the country's drinking water infrastructure is approaching the end of its useful life.

The report from the American Water Works Association in Denver predicts that America's drinking water system will need a massive overhaul in the next 20 to 30 years.

"There won't be a massive failure. But what happens is that the break rates and the need to repair certain pipes start to climb as the pipes get older, and it gets very much like your old family car. It gets to a point where it's economically smarter to simply replace it," said Tom Curtis, the association's deputy executive director for government affairs.

The question is, are ratepayers willing to swallow the replacement costs?

In its report, AWWA surveyed a cross-section of 20 U.S. cities for a report it titled "Dawn of the Replacement Era." Pittsburgh was not one of the cities examined, but Curtis says the findings are instructive for everyone.

The survey found:

A "huge wave" of water supply pipes laid 50-100 years ago are approaching the end of their useful lives, according to the report, and "we can expect to see significant increases in break rates and therefore repair costs over the coming decades."

An estimated $250 billion will be needed in the next 30 years to replace worn-out drinking pipes, valves and fittings, eventually forcing the average utility to spend 3 1/2 times more on pipe replacement than it does today.

Water suppliers also will face added expenses from meeting more stringent water quality standards. "New things will be regulated that we weren't able to detect before," said Curtis. "It seems the regulation machinery only drives in one direction, toward ever tighter, more stringent and more expensive standards.

"This will be very expensive in some cities. It could double or triple the rates."

The cost to consumers will not be uniform, and those in smaller water systems are expected to see the greatest increases. Also the poor -- who typically live in older neighborhoods with older pipes -- will likely bear the most cost. Worse, if the break happens in the service line, the homeowner bears the cost, which can mean bills of $500 to $2,000, depending on how long the line is.

Already, some local water suppliers are charging more than twice the median national rate of $2 for every 1,000 gallons of water used, although it's not clear how much the higher cost can be attributed to bad pipes.

Steady replacements

Under a program launched by Gov. Robert Casey in 1988, water authorities can obtain low-interest loans and sometimes grants to replace pipe and improve treatment plants. The program, called Pennvest, has approved more than $300 million locally in loans and grants to water suppliers, and $2.9 billion statewide.

Several local water authorities say they already have aggressive pipe replacement programs in place, and they downplay the aging pipe theory.

"If a pipe is in the ground 80 or 90 years and it's been functioning, I don't think another 20 years is going to have an effect, honestly," said Randy Krause, vice president of Bankson Engineers, which does consulting work for many of the region's water suppliers.

Westmoreland County is the state's largest water authority, with more than 2,000 miles of pipe, achieved by merging 30 water systems in the past 60 years. While its size gives it economy-of-scale advantages, spotty record keeping by some of the acquired systems has made authority officials unsure of the condition of pipes, some of which have been in use for close to 150 years.

In one community, they found "pipe" that was actually hollowed wood, coated with tar and bound with metal strap. It has since been replaced.

"There are still a lot of areas in our system that we have to do upgrades on, and we're trying to do it systematically," said Chris Kerr, general manager for the Westmoreland authority. "It's hard to do in a very short period of time."

Dave Walker, director of distribution for Pittsburgh Water and Sewer, oversees a system that includes pipe ranging in size from the 8-foot diameter main at the water treatment plant on the Allegheny River to the 4-inch mains running in some residential areas. Nearly all the larger pipes have been refurbished, cleaned and lined with cement, he said. "The smaller lines are a different story. I don't think we have the wherewithal to do all the smaller lines."

Yet his biggest worry lies east of his Downtown office, to the "hospitalopolis" in Oakland. "It's a major problem for us. There's so much development out there with the hospitals and the universities."

Life and death

Walker is well aware of the hundreds of patients, doctors and nurses for whom losing water for a few hours is not just an inconvenience, but a matter of life and death.

On Aug. 4, 2000, a 5-foot portion broke off a 20-inch main near the Herron Hill pumping station at Dithridge and Centre streets in Oakland, spilling 20 million gallons and disrupting water service to Oakland hospitals as well as 8,000 homes in Squirrel Hill, upper Oakland, the Hill District, Point Breeze, Bloomfield and Garfield. As the Herron Hill reservoir drained, water was rerouted from Highland Park, but some were without water for more than eight hours.

UPMC Presbyterian canceled hundreds of nonemergency surgeries, and other hospitals scrambled to get their hands on bottled water.

Fortunately, those near-catastrophes have been infrequent, but "every single day there's a water break" somewhere, Walker said.

If Walker could magically overnight replace the old cast-iron pipe beneath Oakland's main thoroughfares with cement-lined ductile pipe, those worries would be less. But it would come with a hefty price tag.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer customers saw their first rate hike in seven years earlier this year, and authority officials are mindful that many of their customers live on limited or fixed incomes. "Our base is a lot of older folks. They remember when water was almost free," said Walker.

It may not quite be free, but it is plentiful in our corner of the world.

While much of the United States has suffered through fires and drought the past few months, we sit in one of the world's most generous watersheds because, through a quirk of nature, our water supply gets replenished from both the north and the south. We've even earned a sort-of special variance when the rest of the state has drought alerts.

Until the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers run dry, we won't go thirsty and we'll probably be allowed to wash the car and water the lawn.

But such largesse can bring complacency -- why raise rates to replace pipes when water is plentiful and it's cheaper to let the pipes leak? The leaked water, after all, just goes into the ground water and probably back to the water basin.

But there is a price to pay for such apathy, water officials say.

"What you need to worry about is letting the system just degrade more and more. At some point it affects the service you can provide," AWWA's Curtis said.

Leaks eventually become ruptures and then you're dealing not only with lost water, but damaged roads and angry customers.

In Fox Chapel, water authority Manager Mark Nicely has pushed through a major pipe replacement program in the last 20 years, because his board told him, "Let's position our authority so our customers don't get slammed." As a result, he's achieved a 30 percent decrease in water main breaks.

But he's not sure how many others are prepared for coming problems in their water systems.

"With the sewers, it's upon us. The water's coming. People are going to see widespread rate increases, I'd guess in another eight to 10 years."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 19, 2002) A table about daily water use, and lost water, in Monday's Post-Gazette was based on annual water supply reports filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for 1999. They were the most recent reports available for all the listed water suppliers. The table is available through the "Online chart: Lost water" link above.

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