Reducing Water System Losses

We mostly know the leaks that we see – burst mains, leaky valves – but the most insidious are the ones that we don’t see. Small and quiet leaks underground like the photo on the right often remain undetected for years, causing millions of gallons of precious water supplies to be lost.

The above photos are courtesy of Be.Futureproof, Russ Allison Loar and Joe Petykowski respectively, all of whom can be found on

In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated that 7 billion  gallons of clean drinking water are lost daily in the U.S. – more than 2 trillion gallons per year – due to leaks in our nation’s aged water infrastructure.  Based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) estimated average daily consumption of 320 gallons per household, the amount of lost water could have met the needs of nearly 22 million average American households every year.

Every unit of water lost also wastes energy, since considerable quantities of energy are used to collect or produce water, to transport water supplies over long distances from areas of collection or production to points of use, to treat non potable supplies to standards needed to safely serve their intended uses, and then to deliver that water to both residential and commercial consumers.  All along that path, energy is input into the water, and water is lost.

As we face increasing concerns about regional water supply shortages, whether through changes in hydrology or impaired local water quality, it is clear that precious water supplies can be preserved through proactive maintenance, repair and replacement of pipes and pumps.  However, these types of repairs are also very expensive.  Most of our water delivery system is underground; and especially in mature urban areas, a lot of it is under busy streets or sidewalks, requiring expensive excavation.

Decades of deferred maintenance ave created a daunting challenge: that of replacing the nation’s buried water infrastructure at an accelerated pace. A 2012 study sponsored by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimated that more than $1 trillion will be needed over the next 25 years. In order for water utilities to meet their service obligations, the current annual rate of investment – about $13 billion per year – will need to be ramped up by a factor of at least three, just to repair or replace systems that have either failed or are on the brink of failure. The picture gets worse over time as older infrastructure continue to fail. AWWA estimated that water infrastructure investment needs will reach $1.7 trillion by 2050.  This estimate includes both repairs and replacements of old infrastructure, and construction of new infrastructure needed to meet growth in population and water demand.

The USEPA estimates that every year, there are about 240,000 main breaks in the nation’s 880,000 miles of water distribution systems.  Responding to water system failures such as main breaks on an emergency basis is much more costly than scheduled maintenance and repairs in every way. Emergencies cause risks to life and safety. The need for immediate dispatch of emergency response staff disrupts ongoing maintenance activities and incurs higher costs for both people and equipment. Emergencies also disrupt businesses, causing adverse economic impacts on local communities.

Recognizing the need for concerted action, AWWA partnered with water utilities and their engineering consultants to develop strategies for mitigating water supply losses from leaky infrastructure while the dialogue continues into long-term funding challenges to wholesale replacement of major portions of the nation’s water systems.  Through these collaborative efforts, a number of best practices and tools have been rolled out to help water utilities identify and quantify water system leaks.

Though there are no national requirements for reporting water losses, many states have implemented policies and regulations requiring water utilities within their jurisdictions to measure and report water system losses [see State of the States: Emerging Water Loss Regulations In the U.S.].

Meanwhile, the USEPA, AWWA, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, the Water Research Foundation, and many other industry associations and private companies continue improving best practices, tools, technologies and techniques for reducing water system losses. Concurrently, the hard facts are being documented and disseminated to water customers that will ultimately need to foot the bill for the extensive water system improvements that are needed. Precipitated in large part by one of the driest years on record, Californians signaled their acknowledgement by resoundingly approving $7.5 billion in water bonds on November 3, 2014.

This webpage was funded by California utility customers under the auspices of the California Public Utilities Commission

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