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Aging and leaky water mains cost N.J. millions

Friday, January 27, 2017   (0 Comments)
Share | 01/27/17

Across New Jersey, the aging pipes that move treated drinking water to businesses and homes are so leaky they lose 130 million gallons a day – enough water to fill the Empire State Building about every two days, a new study concludes. The report says that at least 50 million gallons a day – conservatively valued at $10 million a year – could be recovered in a cost-effective way through investments in new or upgraded infrastructure. Saving 50 million gallons a day equals the amount of water used daily by 700,000 people – or a population 2.5 times the size of Newark, said Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst for the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which produced the study. “We’re talking about quite substantial real water losses – in the range of 25 to 35 percent of all treated water,” Osann said. 

 Repairing the state’s 60,000 miles of water pipes – some so old they are made of wood – could not only preserve a vital resource, but also would enable utilities to remove less water each day from the rivers, lakes and underground aquifers that provide the state’s drinking water supply, reducing stress on those ecosystems, said Chris Sturm, director for policy and water at New Jersey Future. George Kunkel, a water loss expert who authored the new report, studied those Delaware basin audits, and found that in 2013, the 76 utilities there lost about 15 million gallons of treated water a day. Kunkel then extrapolated the Delaware basin data to the entire state, and concluded that 130 million gallons of water are lost per day. Kunkel said the 76 utilities represented a good mix of public and private for-profit water utilities, but did not include some of the larger urban systems, such as Suez, which supplies water to 800,000 residents in Bergen and Hudson counties.

Based on his experience that larger urban utilities tend to lose more water than other systems, Kunkel said the actual water lost statewide could be even larger than the 130 million gallons a day estimated in the report. Some experts estimate $8 billion in water infrastructure upgrades are needed over 20 years. Some steps have already been taken in recent years to start accelerating upgrades, but officials say the challenge is to get the members of the public thinking about paying for infrastructure that they never see, buried underground.

Andrew Hendry is president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, which represents the six largest for-profit water companies in the state, including Suez and New Jersey American Water. Hendry said the six companies have spent $2 billion in the past five years on upgrades – not only relining and replacing pipe, but also upgrading water towers and reservoir dams, among other projects. “As pipes age they have the potential for leaks, and we have a lot of old infrastructure in New Jersey,” Hendry said. “These companies have been doing some innovative things to help with that. But it’s still going to take more time and investment.”

In 2012, the state began to allow for-profit water companies to charge an extra fee to upgrade water pipes. In the first two years after the move, Suez invested $32 million on upgrade projects in 25 towns, replacing or rehabilitating 34,000 feet of water mains – the length of 94 football fields laid end to end.
 Since then, Suez has deployed more than 800 leak-detection loggers that provide continuous leak detection in six North Jersey pressure districts. Because of these and other efforts, Suez has reduced lost water from about 27 percent in 2013, to just below 21 percent in 2016 – or about 3 billion gallons annually. From 2014 through 2016, Suez has also replaced or cleaned and lined 12.1 miles of water mains, totaling 63,800 feet – or 177 football fields.

But only about 40 percent of state residents get their water from systems run by private, for-profit companies such as Suez. The rest are run by municipal government agencies, which don’t always invest in repairs or maintenance because they are run by local politicians worried about voter backlash against rising water rates, some water experts say. Sturm said the new report could help local public utilities “make the case to ratepayers to commit the funds needed for water audits and address those leaks, because it saves money in the long run.”


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