opinions+water: Time for Texas to Get Serious About Controlling Water Loss

opinions+water: Time for Texas to Get Serious About Controlling Water Loss

This fall the state’s 16 regional water planning groups will be submitting to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) revised plans for meeting projected water demands in their area of Texas over the next fifty years  to 2070 and even beyond. These “2021” regional water plans, once reviewed and approved by TWDB, will be the culmination of the latest five-year review and revision cycle established by the passage of Senate Bill 1 by the Texas Legislature in 1997. The plans reflect “bottom-up” planning because these regional assessments of water needs and recommendations to meet those needs will be aggregated into the 2022 state water plan.

The total price tag for the various water management strategies proposed in the 2021 regional plans to meet future water needs has not yet been tallied. However, the 2017 Texas Water Plan estimated a projected outlay of $63 billion in capital costs over the next 50 years to implement strategies to address the water demands of a state population anticipated to reach 51 million by 2070. That $63 billion was an increase from the $55.7 billion cost estimate in the 2012 state water plan, and the projected cost of the 2022 plan is likely to be higher.

Although the 2017 state plan projected that around 30% of water needs by 2070 could be met through “demand management”  for example, over 15% from agricultural water conservation and about 10% from municipal conservation  the bulk of the water identified as needed would come from about 2500 water development projects, which account for the huge capital costs. Those projects include reservoirs, water pipelines, groundwater wells, water reuse projects, desalination plants, aquifer storage and recovery projects and others to produce millions of acre-feet of water over and above existing supplies to be available in case of a repeat of the state’s historic drought of record. The 2022 state plan will likely show a similar scenario.

But buried in most  though not all  of these plans are the facts that significant volumes of water from existing water supplies are being lost in municipal water distribution systems, that the state’s water utilities do not appear to be making much progress in curbing water loss, and that some of the anticipated future volumes of water from new projects will probably be lost once put into distribution systems experiencing maintenance challenges and other problems. This “water loss” is defined in various ways and is sometimes referred to as “unaccounted for” water or “non-revenue water,” which are slippery and not interchangeable terms. Put simply, however, water loss is the difference between the volume of water put into a distribution system from its source and the volume of water that is used by and billed to end users.

That difference may include “real” losses such as leakage from pipelines, water main breaks, water spills, and other such incidents and “apparent” losses resulting from water that is not accounted for due to problems with billing systems, broken water meters, inaccurate water meter reading, and perhaps even intentional theft of water through unauthorized taps into the distribution system. “Total” water loss is the sum of real losses and apparent losses.

The latest update of the Texas Water Conservation Scorecard, a product of the Texas Living Waters Project, noted that  based on water loss audit data submitted to TWDB  about 33% of retail public water utilities in Texas serving 3300 connections or more reported a total loss of about 13.9% or greater. The 13.9% figure was the average water loss over the most recent five-year period for which data was available.

Moreover, the 2020 updated Scorecard reported very high total water loss figures for the state’s largest cities: “Austin, over 15%; Dallas, almost 18%; El Paso, 13%; Fort Worth, almost 18%; Houston, almost 17%; and San Antonio, over 17%.” The Scorecard also reported that the average total percentage water loss for water utilities required to submit annual audits to TWDB had increased 2.7% since the 2016 Scorecard. Percentage water loss reported by “small” utilities (those serving a population of less than 25,000 but at least 10,000) was generally higher than that for medium-sized and large utilities.

While many water utility professionals disagree with the use of percentages as indicators of water loss for a variety of reasons  for example, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) no longer supports the use of percentage indicators of what they term “nonrevenue water” – other measures confirm the significance of water loss in major cities. For example, the report on “Water Loss Audit & Revenue Enhancement Program” done for the City of Houston’s Public Works & Engineering Department by Black & Veatch in 2017 found that “the City’s water losses through 2015 were approximately equivalent to 111 gallons per connection per day due to system infrastructure issues and billing and metering inefficiencies.” The report further noted that the larger share of this water loss came from real losses (87 gallons per connection per day) than from apparent losses (24 gallons per connection per day). For 2018, the City of Houston reported to TWDB a real water loss of almost 17 billion gallons of water and an apparent water loss of over 2.6 billion gallons.

Water loss in municipal distribution systems is not a new issue. The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club released a report in November 2004 on “Water Loss from Texas Suppliers” that noted that the average water loss of approximately 1000 water utilities reporting to TWDB on “unaccounted for” water in the year 2000 was 11.7%. (Another 2000+ water utilities required to report on water use to TWDB did not provide information on “unaccounted for” water, so a complete picture of water loss for all 3000+ utilities was not possible at the time).

In 2013, the Houston Chronicle, reporting on water loss data submitted to TWDB by the City of Houston for 2012, noted that “enough water seeped from broken pipes to supply 383,000 residents for one year.” The article noted that Houston’s water loss then was about 15.2% and that the figures for other cities for 2012 were in the same range; for example, Dallas at 17.6% and San Antonio at 16.04%. When you look at the 2012 figures for these cities and compare them to the 2018 figures used in the 2020 Water Conservation Scorecard, it seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Water loss continues to be a major challenge for Texas water utilities.

Does this mean that Texas utilities and policy makers are ignoring water loss or not attempting to address the issue? No. Several water utilities, such as those in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, have been taking steps to reduce water loss in their systems, including getting financial assistance from TWDB to replace aging infrastructure prone to leaks and other problems. The Texas Legislature has enacted a number of laws seeking better data on water loss from the state’s utilities and trying to incorporate water loss criteria into decisions about state financial assistance for water supply projects.

But the problem of water loss is complex and immense. Many existing water pipelines in the state’s major cities, for example, are likely beyond their projected lifespan. Changing soil conditions in areas such as Houston may cause breaks and thus leaks in even relatively new pipelines. A spectacular water main break in Houston in February of this year was a dramatic reminder of water loss challenges and the volumes involved.

Another complication in addressing water loss is the lack of agreement on the appropriate target for utilities seeking to curb their loss. Achieving zero water loss is not realistic, so what would be an acceptable level of water loss in a utility? For many years the AWWA used 10% water loss as a benchmark for utilities to mark a threshold for taking more aggressive action to curb losses. However, even 10% means an incredibly high volume of water in many utility systems (and, as noted, AWWA now has abandoned percentages as an acceptable metric). A water loss rate of less than 5%, which some utilities in Texas report they have achieved, would probably be ideal, although a range of 5 to 8% may be more realistic, and small utilities with few customers and miles of pipelines may be challenged financially to achieve that range of water loss.

No matter what water loss targets are chosen, however, Texas needs to tackle the loss of tens of billions of gallons of water each year in municipal water systems. We need to make water loss control a top state priority and require and assist water utilities in prioritizing it as well. Undoubtedly, controlling water loss effectively is going to take a significant amount of money  not just for capital expenditures to replace aging infrastructure but also operation and maintenance funding to monitor distribution systems and respond expeditiously to problems.

But spending funds on a major scale to address water loss is not necessarily a negative financial outcome. A recent article in the Texas Water Journal by Dr. Timothy Loftus noted that we may be underestimating the value of economically recoverable water that could be realized through water loss control strategies. Water captured through these strategies could result in avoided costs by postponing or even eliminating or at least reducing the size of some new water development projects, perhaps trimming that $63 billion+ price tag for projects identified in the state water plan.

By no means will a major effort at municipal water loss control meet all the anticipated future water demands of a growing population, but it should be a component of a comprehensive approach to meeting those demands. We cannot afford the tremendous waste of water being lost in our major cities and elsewhere. The time for aggressive action is now.

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