NRDC Website Helps Cut Water Losses

A website created by the Natural Resources Defense Council looks at how well states and utilities apply policies to measure and report water losses and set reduction targets.
NRDC Website Helps Cut Water Losses
Ed Osann

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Water utilities and the state agencies that regulate them are concerned about water losses in distribution systems. But how effective are their policies for measuring and reporting losses and devising remedies?

The Natural Resources Defense Council has created an interactive website, “Cutting Our Losses” (, where visitors can explore the strength of policies states have adopted to quantify, locate and report unnecessary water losses accurately, and set targets for water loss reduction.

The NRDC states that aging water pipes across the country experience some 237,000 breaks per year, resulting in $2.8 billion per year in lost revenue and higher rates for consumers. The website highlights states that are setting the pace with policies requiring best practices, such as water loss accounting, to help in estimating, locating and reducing leaks.

Still, the NRDC observes that more needs to be done. Ed Osann, a senior water policy analyst with NRDC, talked about the website and the issue of water loss reduction in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Why did NRDC decide to make water loss accounting a priority?

Osann: Water loss is experienced by municipal water systems all over the country. Its effects are a kind of tax on water systems and on utilities’ customers. The industry has made efforts in recent years to develop methods for characterizing and estimating the volume of losses from distribution systems. We want to encourage utilities to use new water loss accounting protocols developed by the AWWA, and encourage states to consider policies for consistent reporting of water losses and validation of water audit data. Engineers are fond of saying you can’t manage what you can’t measure. In a literal sense, you can’t measure all of the leaks from a water distribution system, but you can apply the water loss audit process to infer the volume of losses.

TPO: What are the environmental impacts of water losses?

Osann: The top-of-mind issue is the waste of water, especially in areas experiencing or expecting scarcity or degradation of water supplies. But beyond that, in many cases, lost water is the least of the problems. There is service disruption. There is potential for traffic disruption from any significant water main break. There is potential property damage, plus the cost of emergency repairs and overtime. In addition, when you have a system with leaks, there is potential for contamination that accompanies a substantial reduction in pressure.

TPO: What are the impacts of water losses on energy?

Osann: That is another dimension. When water is lost from the system, it carries with it all the energy that’s embedded in the water supply, from the point of withdrawal, through treatment process and out into the distribution system. There is typically energy added at every stage of that process. All these factors come together to underscore the importance of careful assessment of water losses and the development of strategic foundations to reduce losses cost-effectively.

TPO: What is the importance of accuracy in water loss auditing?

Osann: The water audit process as developed by the AWWA is very accommodating. It allows water suppliers to enter the information they have at hand at whatever stage of accuracy or precision may be available. For each value they enter into the water loss audit worksheet, there’s an associated data validity score that the user is asked to assign. It’s important especially in the early stages of this process for suppliers to be as candid and frank as possible about the data they have and its quality. We think it’s important to get as solid a factual foundation as possible with regard to water losses, so that water suppliers and their boards of directors can identify and adopt cost-effective strategies for dealing with the issue.

It is very informative and instructive to the industry to see candid reports on water losses from a variety of suppliers: east, west, north and south; large and small systems; arid areas and areas subject to frost; heavy-traffic areas and low-density areas. The AWWA audit software accommodates all that diversity with a consistent framework for characterizing and reporting the volumes of losses. It’s important at the state level and nationally to get a solid foundation of validated data to help understand the issue and to begin to formulate appropriate intervention strategies.

TPO: How would you characterize the NRDC’s system for rating states on water loss reporting?

Osann: The rankings are not based on what the absolute water losses are. It’s a system for presenting the status of water loss reporting across the 50 states — of how states are moving to progressively more useful reporting policies. For example, the rankings consider the breadth and frequency of the reporting requirement, whether the reports use the standard AWWA terminology, and whether the state uses the free AWWA software.

We encourage as much candor as possible in assessing the state of water losses. Our expectation is that most water managers will welcome having a standard water loss audit published for their water utility because that lays the groundwork at the local level for discussion of the issues facing the buried water infrastructure, which by all accounts is one of the most serious infrastructure issues facing the country.

TPO: What is the practical benefit of having this water loss information made public?

Osann: With understanding of water losses comes potential support for sensible strategies to address the issues and needs of the system. Water suppliers face a classic problem of “out of sight, out of mind.” The issues and concerns are not readily visible to the public, and the level of resources needed to manage that legacy investment is not as apparent to decision-makers. They’ve never actually seen an underground leak, so without information, how do they process a water manager’s concerns versus other municipal service issues that are more visible?

TPO: What advances are you seeing in the quality and usefulness of water loss reporting?

Osann: The AWWA has released an updated version of its water loss software that has additional features, greater clarity and better descriptions of some terms. The data validity score system is also explained a little bit better. There’s also new software AWWA is developing called the Component Analysis. It allows managers to take the overall snapshot of water losses that comes from the water audit software and aggregate them as to their type and their location around the water distribution system. There is also a new edition of the AWWA manual of practice on water loss that will be out in hard copy by the end of 2015. 

TPO: How about advances on the technology front for detecting, measuring and controlling losses?

Osann: Technology has evolved quite a bit over the last 10 to 15 years. Acoustic assessments of water distribution systems have gotten better and more practical. You don’t have to walk the whole system with headphones. For example, you can place movable loggers within the system from which data can be uploaded electronically. Similarly, there are now more practical and affordable pressure monitors.

TPO: What is the importance of pressure monitoring to water loss avoidance?

Osann: In the next few years we’re likely to see increasing awareness of the importance of pressure management in the distribution system. Pressure management certainly will reduce losses, because if you can step down the pressure in a segment of supply piping, you are by that very fact reducing the running rate of any leaks in that piping.

But we also see growing recognition of pressure management for its potential to reduce the rate of main breaks. If we can better manage pressure and keep small leaks from becoming big breaks, that has huge implications. It means we can get more life out of legacy infrastructure. We need to be strategic about investments in water loss reduction and the related investments in main replacement. We simply don’t have the money to replace all the pipes that leak — not this year, in a decade or in 20 years. The use of technology and analytical techniques to better manage systems and reduce water main breaks can be a great boon to the industry.

TPO: If you were to name a couple of states that are doing a good job on the water loss reporting front, which ones might they be?

Osann: I would commend Texas for being the first to require statewide reporting of water losses through a consistent methodology. They were moving to adopt that requirement at the same time that the AWWA was developing its standardized methodology. In effect, Texas took an early version of the AWWA methodology and adopted it as a state requirement.

Georgia is also worthy of plaudits for enacting a statewide reporting requirement by statute in 2012. They have moved their water systems to use the AWWA software reporting format and standard terminology, and they have also established a process for validating the water loss audit reports. They have a team of knowledgeable professionals who are in touch with water suppliers to discuss their draft audit reports. That includes looking for anomalies and probing the level of confidence and the level of accuracy behind the numbers being submitted. That validation process is very important and we expect it to spread beyond Georgia very soon.

TPO: What can visitors to the Cutting Our Losses website expect?

Osann: The website is intended to be user-friendly. It contains loads of information. Visitors can scroll over a map of the United States, click on any state and see what level of water loss assessment that state’s policies require, if any. If the state has a policy, there is a link to it, so it’s easy to view and compare policies across states. In the end, we want to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas. Let’s get the best ideas out there and visible. There are some big spaces on the map where there are no statewide water loss reporting requirements. We hope that will change, and very soon.  


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