Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Infrastructure Matters

Ever wonder where your drinking water comes from and how the water utilities set the rates that they do? Well, the Record put together a comprehensive report about Northern New Jersey water providers, and the resulting picture shines a light on the gross negligence carried out by these providers.

For far too long, the water providers, including United Water and Ridgewood Water and Ho Ho Kus water, ignored leaking water pipes unless they caused major disruptions (water main breaks), and that's cost everyone.

It's cost the providers because they're now drawing more water than allotted. They're treating more water than they can bill for. And it's costing rate payers because they're now on the hook for having to deal with the utilities' failures to deal with leaks for years on end.

No other industry would allow leakage (or shrinkage in a business setting) of 30%, let alone 20% or 15%, and yet that's what Ho Ho Kus water did.
Last year alone, United Water could not account for 26 percent of the water it treated and pumped. That amounts to 10.6 billion gallons, enough to fill the Oradell Reservoir three times over. “United Water has a lot of leaks in their system. It’s one of the leakiest systems I know,” said Robert Kecskes, a retired water supply expert for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

But United Water isn’t the only supplier with losses significantly above the industry standard of 15 percent. In 2011, Ho-Ho-Kus couldn’t account for 33 percent of the water it pumped and treated — one of every three gallons — according to state documents. Oakland lost 28 percent, while Ridgewood Water lost 20 percent. In fact, across the nation, water utilities lose billions of gallons of drinking water each year because of their aging infrastructure.

Some of that water gets used — when water mains are flushed or firefighters open hydrants. In addition, some utilities rely on old and faulty meters, which fail to detect all customer consumption. But experts say the bulk of the unaccounted water is wasted, spewing out of burst water mains or dripping through holes in corroded pipes or leaky joints.

One of the state’s worst loss rates occurred in Camden, where a 2009 state audit found that 45 percent of the drinking water couldn’t be accounted for. That figure was “more comparable to that of cities in developing countries,” the audit said. United Water, which operated the system at the time, blamed the losses on “leaks in the city’s aging pipes.”

Lost water is a serious issue in North Jersey, where drinking water is an increasingly scarce resource. Utilities are caught between the clashing realities of rising demand and chronically low reservoirs. The watershed is under so much stress that some utilities have been forbidden by the state from drilling new wells in their search for more water.
It's going to take billions of dollars statewide, and hundreds of billions to improve the state of water delivery across the nation. That's an infrastructure project worthy of serious investment - since everyone relies upon a safe water supply.

New York City is undertaking a multi-decade Water Tunnel 3 project so that they can build a redundant water supply system and check the other tunnels for leaks for the first time since they were built; neither of the other tunnels have been taken out of service since they were built because millions of New York City residents rely upon the water supplied. The City understands that it's losing millions of gallons a day from leaks, and the new tunnel is a first step at remedying the problem. They're also in the process of dealing with other leaks in the system with additional tunnel construction.

And that's only on the water delivery side. Transmitting and treating sewage is the other end, and that system is also broken around the nation. Far too much ends up in waterways without being treated, including in New York City where a combined sewer system means that rainfall can overwhelm treatment plants and shunt hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the waterways fouling them on a regular basis.

That needs to be fixed - and the problems aren't limited to New York City. It's just that New York City is among those places where the problems have been identified and solutions are being considered and implemented on a decades-long pace that should be accelerated.

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