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Unaccounted-for water a problem in the area

By WKTV News

(WKTV) - Two months ago, a state audit of the City of Little Falls showed more than half the water the city was treated was never delivered.

The mayor attributed much of the loss to underground leaks in the century-old system. But how does Little Falls' unaccounted for water compare to other water districts in Central New York?

The one audit in Little Falls brought to light a problem that is found in every water department.

"We have water breaks very often, on a regular basis, those are the ones that are leaking that make their way to the surface that show up on the street," said Patrick Becher, executive director of the Mohawk Water Valley Authority.

Becher says it's the leaks that don't make it to the streets that are often the most costly.

"But there are leaks that go on elsewhere, smaller ones underground," Becher said. "And water is getting away someplace and it's not detectable unless you actually go and listen to the pumps for the sound of the leaking."

Each year, each water district has to file a report with the state. In the state comptroller's audit of Little Falls released in December, it showed Little Falls distributed 719 million gallons of water in 2011 and delivered or used 330 million gallons, leaving 389 million gallons unaccounted for. That's 54 percent of the water the city puts into its system is lost.

"Some of it may be going in the ground, some of it may not be captured by meters," said Daniel Bennett, chief water treatment plant operator in Little Falls. "We don't really know. That's why we're trying to fix as many leaks as we can."

But how does the 54 percent unaccounted for water in Little Falls compare to other water departments or districts?

Of the districts that provided data to NewsChannel Two, Herkimer had 26 percent unaccounted for water in 2011, Oneida had 28 percent and the Mohawk Valley Water Authority, which services Utica and many surrounding towns, had a total unaccounted-for percentage of 28.5.

And because of numbers like these, water districts don't just wait for water mains to break.

"Every year, we hire an outside consultant to come in and listen to about one-third of our system every year," said Becher. "We have almost 750 miles of piping in our system, so we have roughly 250 miles of pipe we listen to every single year."

Becher says since 2001, 1,100 underground leaks have been detected and fixed -- that's about 100 per year.

"So those 100 leaks are ones that were outside of what typically would be considered water main breaks that we find out about through other means," Becher said.

Each water district does the same sort of testing for underground leaks -- some not as often.

For instance, in Oneida, they did this testing for their entire system in 2000, 2003 and 2007, but because of budget issues, they won't do it again until later this year.

"As you know, as leaks go untreated, money goes down the drain," said Tony Nash, Rome superintendent of water.

Nash said in Rome, consultants are hired to test the entire system every three years. However, in Rome, businesses are metered and homes are not.

"I have a particular neighborhood...there's a guy or two that puts it on a tripod and waters it 24 hours a day in the summer," Nash said. "It's a waste. If he had a meter, he'd think twice."

Because there are no meters, there's no way to tell exactly how much water is being used and how much is unaccounted for.

But Nash says everything that can be done to find and contain any underground leaks is being done.

He says besides the testing for and fixing of leaks, the city is in the process of replacing the old meters in commercial businesses with newer, more accurate ones, which can help pinpoint problems faster if there are any issues with water pressure.

"These have the capability of being radio-read," Nash said. "It goes to a tower, tower goes to our billing system and it's over."

But, again, there's no way in Rome to know how much water is actually unaccounted for unless the city installs meters in homes.

"If we could spend 50 to 60 thousand dollars a year, probably within four to five years, we'd have all state-of-the-art equipment," Nash said.

The Mohawk Valley Water Authority has its own device called a correlator, which is used when there are reports from customers of water pressure problems. The correlator helps pinpoint underground leaks.

The authority also does a certain amount of what they call pipe rehabilitation each year in areas where there have been problems.

"You know, we dig holes at every location and put the machine through," Becher said. "Usually outside contractors do this for us. They'll scrape it out, we can coat it with an epoxy coating.

"Sometimes, you can line it with a hose-type material and renew the inside of it. It's a much more cost-effective solution to do that."

So there are plenty of things that can and are being done to keep the loss at a minimum in each district. But, because of a 100-plus-year-old system.

Throughout Central New York, the unaccounted-for water is a known part of the cost to taxpayers. It's either that, or pay about $1 million per mile to replace the old piping -- money each district just does not have.

"For us to bring it down considerably lower than that, we really would have to ramp up our investments in water main replacements, which we would like to do," Becher said. "But we have to find the balance between what the community can afford through water rates versus what is responsible to keep this system going."

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