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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 15, 2014
Water loss still plagues Stonington Water Company

by Rich Hewitt

The unexplained water loss from the Stonington Water Company system continued during the past year.

According to a report prepared for the Maine Public Utilities Commission, about half of the water pumped by the water company last year was unaccounted for. Annaliese Hafford, an engineer with Olver Associates who has managed the water company for the past year, presented the details of the report to the water company board on April 28.

In 2013, the water company pumped 13,465,000 gallons of water from the system wells. Of that amount, just 5,965,247 gallons registered on the water customers’ meters. According to Hafford, they could account for a little more than 600,000 gallons of the unmetered water, which represented known losses from bleeding, hydrant flushing and other operations.

Hafford told the water company board that there was some question about the accuracy of the monitoring numbers early in the year, but the bottom line is that about seven million gallons of water have gone missing last year.

In the past, Hafford has indicated that she suspected that faulty meters throughout the system may be responsible for much of the missing “mystery water,” and on April 28, she reported to the board that Ben Pitts, the system operator, had noticed a trend that also points to meters as part of the problem.

When he compared the water loss for the third and fourth quarters, he noticed that the water loss for each quarter was the same even though the company had pumped two million gallons more in the third quarter than it did in the fourth. Although there probably are leaks throughout the system, Hafford said the comparison of the water loss in the two quarters indicates that the loss is due to something more than leaks.

“Even though we pumped two million gallons more, the loss percentage was the same,” she said. “That makes you think it’s got to be meters rather than leaks.”

Hafford noted that they already have begun to identify malfunctioning meters and to replace them, adding that in the past year, they already have replaced more meters than were done in the past 20 years.

Ben Barrows, the newest member of the board, wondered whether they should focus their efforts on replacing the meters at a quicker pace.

“These numbers are alarming,” he said, noting that the lost water translated into lost revenues.

“That’s a chunk of money we are losing,” he said. “Would it be possible to put more resources into the front end of this?”

While Barrows said he understood that the resources were tight, he indicated that it might make financial sense to replace the meters and stop the water loss, and get the payback in increased revenues as the result of accurate metering.

The cost is the issue. Pitts estimated that it would take about $30,000 to replace all of the 5/8-inch meters, the smaller meters used for residential customers.

The recent rate increase will provide additional funding for the water company, and the current water company budget includes funds to purchase 20 of those smaller meters. Some already have been installed. But that budget is limited and Hafford noted that the water system has a slew of other problems that will need to be corrected in addition to the meters.

The recent announcement that the water company will receive $1.2 million in federal funding through a grant/loan package, will help with that work. Although the grant application targeted specific projects, Hafford said there might be some flexibility in working with the Rural Development program to allocate some of those funds toward additional meters. The water company will also use the federal funds to pay off some existing loans, which could free up some money in the budget.

She cautioned, however, that there is no guarantee that replacing the meters will solve the water loss problem. Although much of the evidence points to the meters as the culprit, Hafford said they are looking at a variety of things, including leaks, water mains, individual homes and the main system meter at the pump house.

The water loss is just one of the problems that the water company hopes to solve in the coming years, but Hafford said that it will take time to bring the system up to snuff. She added that in Calais, another municipal water system she works with, it took about 12 years to upgrade the system.

“We’ve been at it for about a year now and we’ve made a lot of improvements,” she said. “But it’s going to take time. There are so few customers [on the system] and people have to pay their bills.”