For too long, US utilities have placed water leakage in the too hard to fix box. But disruptive new technologies are challenging old truths, rendering this view outdated and complacent.
All my life America has been a beacon for the western world. A young, agile country of freedom, opportunity, epic landscapes and endless natural resources. A place where progress happens.
But recently, it feels a bit like America has hit its late thirties and the poor choices of youth are starting to affect its health. We’ve all been there. The question is, do we think we can ride it out? Or, do we make changes for the sake of our children?
The water crisis is a classic example. Some parts of the US are now in their third decade of drought. Once-limitless river basins and lakes are running dry and communities are literally burning while climate change turns up the heat.
Yet, every year, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the country’s 150,000 water utilities are collectively leaking 1.7 trillion gallons of water every day.
And that’s only if you believe that US water utilities have somehow effortlessly achieved a level of leakage that’s even lower than the UK, which has some of the most advanced leak management in the world.
Don’t get me wrong. There is some great work going on in the US, particularly in states like Georgia, California, Tennessee and Texas and at forward-thinking utilities like DC Water, Tucson and Las Vegas. But there’s a chasm between them and other parts of the union. Take off the blinkers!
Here are some common myths, and why they don’t hold water.
1. We need more evidence about climate change
Do you? I was intrigued to see that researchers in Wyoming were just awarded $20m for a five-year study. into what climate related water reductions will mean for local communities. Wyoming is the fifth driest state. Spoiler alert: it won’t be good. There are thousands of great studies like this under way. But like Europe’s recent edict to make countries officially audit their leakage, the results won’t be available for years. It doesn’t make saving water right now any less rational.
2 The rest of the world is worse
The average rate of leakage in the US is reportedly 17 per cent. On the face of it that compares well to the worldwide average of 30 per cent. But only if you can believe it to be true. Does anyone really know what US leakage really is when swathes of states don’t report or even measure it. Other research quoted by Stanford University suggests US leakage could be up to 50 per cent in places. It’s important to measure leakage for lots of reasons, but comparisons are meaningless. Water shortages are a local issue. If you haven’t got enough water, even one per cent of leakage is too much.
3 It’s too expensive to find and fix leaks
I hear a lot about economic leakage levels (ELLs) – the point where the cost of finding and fixing leaks is theoretically more than the value of water being saved. I want to say a couple of things about this. First, ELL doesn’t take account of the value of not having to source new water, and by the way detecting and fixing leaks is an even cheaper to source water than customer efficiency campaigns. Second, what are you basing your costs on? Leak detection technology has transformed over the last couple of years. It needs no capex investment and much less skilled labour. New data-as-a-service AI leak detection has all but removed human input, error and expensive kit from much of the process. Your ELL is much lower than you think.
4 Pressure management is cheaper
In some cases, yes. But only if you have invested heavily in flow meters and segmented your network into district metered areas (DMAs). According to the AWWA, most systems in the United States are open networks and would ‘need either additional infrastructure and/or a coordinated pressure optimization plan involving all infrastructure in a service zone’. That doesn’t come cheap. And at the end of the day, the leaks are still there with all the inherent risks of pipeline degradation and consequential and reputational damage that entails. You know what I am saying.
5 There’s always water recycling or desalination
These are the two most expensive options for sourcing new water, according to researchers at UC Davis. And don’t even get me started about the carbon cost of pouring all that concrete and powering new facilities while allowing already-treated product to quietly leak away. It’s nonsense. And if you need proof, read San Diego’s story. Yes, the county is self-reliant thanks to the Carlsbad desalination plant. But bills are the highest in the country – around 26% more than neighbouring Los Angeles. And the killer? As people cut back on water, the cost of supplying it goes up – by around 4 per cent a year. Two irrigation districts succeed in their bid to break away and purchase cheaper water elsewhere prices for the locals will go up prices still more.
So there you have it
Fixing water leaks is the cheapest source of extra water you will ever have. It may be the only extra water in some areas. Technology has transformed leak detection and is on the verge of removing the need for leak localisation and investigation altogether.
Next week, the US water sector will gather in San Antonio for the American Water Works Association’s flagship conference, ACE22. I’ll be there and I’ll be intrigued to see what the mood will be.
But let me get to the point, America. I love you, but you are at a watershed. Will you try to ride it out or will you fix your leaks for the sake of your children? The technology is out there. Make the right decision.
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This article was amended on June 13, 2022, to correct the figure for annual US water loss.