The Oklahoma leak busters

America’s drinking water systems got a D+ on a recent report card, in part because of massive water loss to leaks. Grady County, Okla., offers a model for turning that around.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Manager Paul Jones [foreground] and line operator Brett Jones check on a pipes near a water tower outside Minco, Okla. The installation is part of a new well system funded by a $13 million federal loan that enabled Grady County Rural Water District #6 to become independent from neighboring Chickasha, which used to pump water uphill to serve the county's needs.

Each day, the United States loses an estimated 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water to leaks – roughly enough to supply all the homes in Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle combined – some 15 million households in total.

That’s according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the US a D+ for drinking water in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.

It sounds unbelievable, especially for one of the world’s most developed countries. But Paul Jones wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

For the better part of the past decade, he’s been bending his ear to the 700 miles of pipes that cover Grady County Rural Water District #6 in Oklahoma. The sweet spot for listening is between midnight and 4 a.m., when just about no one is showering or watering their lawn, and you can be relatively sure that the sound of rushing water means only one thing: a leak.

When Mr. Jones first started his midnight crusades, the system was losing close to half its water to leaks. Jones’s team has gotten those losses down to as low as 15 percent, providing a model for rural Oklahoma. It’s also a testament to the methodical, persistent work that’s needed to safeguard what is arguably America’s most vital resource.

“They’re probably the premier system in the state as far as being proactive when it comes to water loss,” says Richard Deshazo, a leak detection specialist with the Oklahoma Rural Water Association (ORWA), who credits Jones’s leadership. “He’s done tremendous things in trying to keep water loss down.”

Cutting down on intolerable losses

Over the past 18 months, a pilot project run by Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has given a boost to managers like Jones. An initial audit of 40 community water systems in 2015 found losses of 1 billion gallons a year, or enough to fill more than 1,500 Olympic swimming pools – that’s $6.4 million worth of water at consumer prices. Some systems showed losses as high as 70 to 90 percent.

“There’s no other industry where inefficiencies on this scale would be tolerated,” says Brandon Bowman of DEQ, who says water-loss auditing has become a hot-button issue in the water industry. “We’re riding the front of the wave.”

Since 2011, the US has seen elevated levels of drought around the country, particularly in the Southwest. Though that eased in 2017, with the lowest levels of drought so far this century, a number of states affected by the prolonged dry spells – including Oklahoma – have moved to address water loss more systematically.

Some states have mandated such auditing, including California, Georgia, Hawaii, and Texas. But Mr. Bowman, recently returned from the second annual North American Water Loss Conference, says many states either haven’t tried to take stock of their losses or are just beginning to, making it difficult to gauge the precise scope of the problem on a national level. 

Like Grady County, most rural water systems were installed in the late 1960s and 1970s by the Farmers Home Administration, the precursor to the US Department of Agriculture. Others were installed well before that. Today, America’s water pipes, which have a life expectancy of 75 to 100 years, are being replaced so slowly that it would take about two centuries to upgrade the country’s water infrastructure, according to the ASCE report. 

“You’ve got valves that have been in the ground 55 years and they’re frozen shut,” says Mark Matheson, field operations director for ORWA. “The big key is deteriorating infrastructure – it’s no different from roads and highways.”

During his State of the Union address, President Trump called on Congress to pass an infrastructure plan of at least $1.5 trillion. He hasn't revealed the details, but a leaked document obtained by Axios suggested that as much as a quarter of the appropriation could be devoted to rural infrastructure, including drinking water.

But even in rural Oklahoma, where Mr. Trump won 70 to 80 percent of the vote or more, there’s little faith in Washington politics. Instead, they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

$800,000 in savings so far

Jones’s approach was to embark on a grand project to learn his system and overhaul it – to map each valve, located 18-24 inches underground; to add line meters that enable him to pinpoint leaks; and to implement a $13 million project, funded with federal dollars, to drill their own wells and become independent from the nearby Chickasha system. In the last few months, some unexpected challenges – some frozen pipes that burst, and a river bank’s erosion that destroyed a water line – pushed his loss rate back up to 23 percent, but he’s confident that by spring his team will have it back down to 15 percent again, or better.

Other rural water systems have been more focused on keeping rates low than on making upgrades. Some have become so rundown that in one case a water manager resorted to shooting icicles off a rusty water tower that was in danger of tipping over because of the weight of the ice formed through leaks. 

DEQ, working in tandem with ORWA leak specialists like Mr. Deshazo, often has a tough sell when it talks with community water systems in need of repairs. In the case of Atoka, Okla., the water manager didn’t even want their help, says Michelle Smith, who was the bookkeeper at the time.

“He wasn’t happy about it, but I went ahead and done it anyway,” says Ms. Smith, who provided the necessary information to DEQ and ORWA leak detection specialists Deshazo and Mike Westmoland. “I thought it would help him out to know where our loss was going.” 

Two weeks in, the district’s board of directors spent half an hour debating whether to purchase a single 4-inch valve. But as the leak-busting team was able to demonstrate how much water – and money – they were saving the district, the board became increasingly supportive. The board approved all recommended repairs, the manager was fired, and Ms. Smith was put in charge.

The end result? Atoka, which had been losing more than a million gallons a month (39 percent) is now down to 40,000 gallons (7 percent). ORWA estimates yearly savings to Atoka of more than $50,000.

Overall, the DEQ pilot program, which costs $220,000 per year and is funded through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has saved Oklahoma water systems $800,000 in its first 18 months.

Despite such results, however, the team still faces resistance. And many involved in maintaining water infrastructure – and the safety of drinking water – express frustration that water operators are paid the least of all utility operators and don’t get the respect that other public safety workers receive.  

“You walk into a restaurant and they’ve got a sign – 5 percent discount for fire, police, military. To this day, I’ve never seen one that says: water operator or wastewater professional,” says Kelly Matheson, operations director for ORWA. “But in reality, these are the people who are keeping these communities going. Because without them, we don’t need police, we don’t need fire, because people are not going to be able to live there.”

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