Planet Gore

Calling Joe the Plumber

My hometown of Austin, Texas, is gearing up to save the climate (see previous post) yet cannot even manage to prevent the loss of billions of gallons of water that should be reaching Austinites. The Austin American-Statesman reports about a recent water main break in downtown (hat tip: Matt Szekely):

The rupture Friday morning of a 24-inch water main in downtown Austin bogged down traffic much of the day as utility workers labored through the evening to close a six-inch hole in the pipe.

Uncounted gallons of water seeped underground, and the episode, which the Austin Water Utility said was the fault of bad piping, illustrates the confounding problem of water loss even during a protracted drought.

Such water line breaks are the chief way that Texas loses billions of gallons of water each year.

Even as utilities, which spend money and energy to transform river water to drinking water, ask customers to conserve, huge amounts vanish between the treatment plant and the faucet because of aging lines, inaccurate meters and theft.

The Austin utility lost 6.77 billion gallons of water, worth at least $8.9 million in production costs and retail value, in a 12-month reporting period from Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2005, according to the most recent data available.

The utility pumped about 48 billion gallons of water and dispensed a total of 41 billion gallons of water to the 734,519 people it served during the reporting period.

That puts Austin’s water loss, which can include water sprayed by firefighters, at about 14 percent.

Because of differences in system size, infrastructure age and leak detection equipment, comparing water loss from one utility to another can be difficult.

Houston’s utility loses as much as 13 percent of the water it pumps each year, officials there said. San Antonio Water System reported an 8.2 percent water loss in 2007, and El Paso Water Utilities reported a 9 percent loss last year.  

 . . . leaks are so common that water main breaks or overflows accounted for 4.5 billion gallons during the 2004-05 reporting period.

In the most recent fiscal year, the Austin Water Utility repaired 3,927 small and large leaks — an average of nearly 11 a day.

Meanwhile, the water utility is effectively robbed by faulty meters, which tend to slow down like unwound clocks over time, causing the utility to fail to bill customers for 2.1 billion gallons during the 2004-05 reporting period.

And thieves siphoned away another 142 million gallons by tampering with meters or hooking onto fire hydrants.

In short, the water lost during those 12 months was enough to satisfy the annual needs of more than 118,000 Austinites.

It makes for a nice top-of-the-pile clip to go along with the grant request to the Obama administration for infrastructure improvements. But it doesn’t exactly arouse much confidence in their ability to save the planet, if they can’t even manage their own plumbing.


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