By PWSD #1 of Ralls County Board President Keith Deaver, as reported by Veronica Salmons
When careful record keeping revealed that a known leak problem was actually losing millions of gallons of water each month, the Board of Directors at Public Water Supply District #1 of Ralls County determined it was time for action. This article tracks their progress from keeping records to breaking ground on a major construction project with results that speak (and pay) for themselves.
Making Problem Solving a Priority
Members of the PWSD #1 Board were aware of the District\'s leak problem for years. But just like many leaders of water distribution systems across the Midwest, their focus on fixing leaks and restoring service left little time to consider the source and scope of the leaks. Added to the constant leaks was uncertainty about a pending territorial agreement, staffing and financial issues, and an upcoming Board election.
In 2001, the Board recognized that the District was in a state of flux. They searched for a way to bring a â€œprofessional handleâ€ to PWSD #1 operations and made the decision to contract with the operations and maintenance professionals at Alliance Water Resources. Working together, the Board and Alliance resolved issues that were in the way of examining the leak problemâ€”including the looming territorial agreementâ€”that allowed the Board to finally focus on new progress areas.
Detailed Reports Reveal Infrastructure Problems, Point to Solutions
When it was finally time to focus on the leak issue, years of detailed leak incidents had been recorded and analyzed; bringing the true extent of the problem to light. With facts in hand, the Board could view water loss from a big picture perspectiveâ€”not just as a leak-and-repairs issue, but a financial drain on the District. As Alliance System Manager Jon Rogers sums it up â€œa wholesale water district is essentially a retail businessâ€”we buy and sell water.â€ By that comparison, PWSD #1 averaged a loss of more than 3.5 million gallons (or 25-30%) of â€œinventoryâ€ each month.
With such a large water loss percentage, it was important to eliminate any other factors that could contribute to the problem, but none of the other five common causes for water loss (see below) were found to be at issue. For PWSD #1, the overwhelming concern was cracks and leaks throughout the 35-year-old infrastructure built mostly of â€œglue jointâ€ pipes. Considered to be high technology when they were installed in the late 1960\'s, the pipes have proven problematic in many communities throughout the Midwest.
FIVE COMMON CAUSES FOR WATER LOSS
- Customer meter accuracy
- SCADA/Tower accuracy
- Self-read customer meters
- Master meters
- Cracks and leaks
Unlike current construction technique that utilizes flexible piping and gasket seals at pipe joints, â€œglue jointâ€ pipes are joined during construction with chemical compound solvents that weld the two pipes together. These pipes have proven over time to be very brittle during freeze and thaw, and subject to pressure changes underground that cause the chemical weld to separate slightly; creating a multitude of â€œseepingâ€ leaks throughout the system that are difficult to measure and locate.
Planning to fix the problem was made easier because leak records tracked more than the amount and location of the leaks. Other, often-overlooked, details such as the type of pipe break, soil conditions, and piping material were also recorded. So many details made the most urgent aspects of the project easier to pinpoint because managers could track trends (i.e. areas that leaked most often could be traced back to improper pipe installation for a particular soil condition).
Organized Efforts Secure Financing and Public Approval
Ending water loss was much more difficult than plugging inventory holes in the world of retail. Big projects require intensive planning, regulatory approval and of courseâ€”financing.
The District first considered low to moderate income grants, but did not qualify. They then compared private industry financing with Rural Development (RD) lending programs, and determined there was no contestâ€”Rural Development financing was the obvious way to go because of lower interest rates. District officials worked closely with local RD staff to process financing, and then worked hard to pass a bond issue with the public to secure the loan.
Public notification before and during construction is crucial; you can â€œnever do enoughâ€ to get word out to the public says Deaver, who also stresses that support for bond issues is crucial. It\'s important to take the timeâ€”even several years in advanceâ€”to inform constituents about water system issues in order to build that support.
That extra time is also critical to organize the behind-the-scenes aspects of a financing project. At the same time they were working on the front lines to raise public awareness, District personnel pulled together paperwork to complete Rural Development funding requirements. Legal factors, regulatory requirements and planning details were well under way by the time the bond was eventually passed.
Financing through Rural Development proved to be a positive experience. In fact, a substantial increase in materials pricing (from 1.8 to 3.5 million dollars) meant the District found it necessary to return to request additional funding from RD almost before the project had begun.
Detailed financial, planning and project documentation once again came in handy to make the second funding process run smoothly with the help of Rural Development representatives. It also helped that the District had planned ahead for a larger bond capacity that was approved in the earlier election. Rural Development leadership has even taken note of the efforts at Ralls County. â€œI applaud the cooperation of the many partners working collectively to reduce the water loss plus improve the management and efficiency of serving the customers in the Ralls PWSD,â€ said Greg Branum, Missouri State Director for USDA Rural Development.
Construction Phase Begins and Ends with Lessons Learned
Because the leak records were so detailed, three main causes were identified as major contributors to the problems at Ralls #1: the (chemical bond pipe) material used, the bedding it was laid in, and poor installation technique.
This time around, the Board took pains to make sure each of these three potential sore spots was addressed to avoid future problems. Flexible, modern piping with gasket-seal joints was used to avoid leaky seals. And actual installation was monitored at all times to assure proper bedding and installation techniques were used: â€œNot one foot of pipe was in the ground and covered unless there was an inspector standing there,â€ Deaver stated. The Board was determined to have a finished project they could be proud of, and they were willing to support the necessary expenses, overtime and hassles to make sure the construction phase was completed just the way it should be.
The key to a successful water loss recovery project is good data management. It\'s necessary to track as many factors as possible to determine both the amount of water lost and the cause(s) of the loss. At PWSD #1, that means a comprehensive annual review of all repair orders. Whenever a leak is recorded and repaired, each aspect (including date/season, soil conditions, weather conditions, etc.) is analyzed in order to keep an eye on the big picture and help spot trends within the infrastructure.
Now that most of the construction is complete, this information will be used to address system problems while they\'re still relatively small. In fact, the Board has proactively established secondary funds for extension and replacement to address â€œsmallerâ€ issues before they become big problems.
Results: Reduced Water Loss Brings Real Savings
With months of post-construction reporting data now in hand, it\'s apparent the water loss reduction project is a success. Savings average $5,851 each month, or approximately seventy thousand dollars annually.
And although â€œleaks never happen from eight to five,â€ as Rogers laments, the number of leaks has reduced dramatically. Comparable data shows a reduction in leaks from an average of 25 per month down to ten.
Not only is the District saving an estimated thirty thousand dollars annually on the associated leak-repair costs of equipment, labor, overtime and materials, but also employee moral has improved. Workers are called out much less often since the construction project. After many years of constant call-outs, they are happy to have the opportunity to spend more time with their families.
Another result of less time spent fixing leaks is the opportunity to renew focus on other District business. PWSD #1 staff has filled their time completing meter audits, mapping projects and other essential tasks that help the system run more smoothly. The Board can also get on with their core businessâ€”doing what\'s best for the customers of the rural water district. Expanding service lines to appropriate areas is one example.
Conclusions: Focus on â€œTotal Pictureâ€ Before Expansion
When there is a known problem as costly as the one faced by Ralls County PWSD #1, â€œyou gotta do something to fix it,â€ as Deaver states. Good documentation is key to identifying the problem and in determining the most effective fix.
In his twenty-plus cumulative years as a water district board member, Deaver has had what he terms an important change of heart toward system management. His best advice to any utility leader facing troubling leaks or any kind of system failure: â€œback off and take a look at the total picture.â€ He now believes that instead of focusing only on expansion it is vitally important to repair, maintain and reconstruct current infrastructure whenever necessary.
Keith Deaver is president of Public Water Supply District #1 of Ralls County Board of Directors. He can be contacted through the PWSD #1 office, 573.221.6615.
Veronica Salmons is marketing coordinator for Alliance Water Resources, Inc. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 573.874.8080.
For More Information
- The American Water Works Association offers information on how water utilities can â€œprovide stewardship and accountability in their operationsâ€¦and [keep] their system losses to a reasonable minimal level.â€ Find their water loss homepage online at http://www.awwa.org/waterwiser/waterloss/.
- Find the EPA water efficiency homepage and a link to WaterSenseSM and Alliance for Water Efficiency programs at http://www.epa.gov/waterinfrastructure/waterefficiency.html.