In the midst of a historic drought, a new analysis of state records has revealed that the Bay Area of California has been losing as much as 23 billion gallons of water a year. Due to a variety of problems experienced by the region’s water providers, including aging and broken pipes, the counties have leaked enough to submerge all of Manhattan with five feet of water. This news has been ill-received by area residents attempting to conserve their water usage.
According to research conducted by the San Jose Mercury News, Bay Area water agencies have lost anywhere from three to 16% of their treated water. This news comes in light of area residents who have been forced to reduce their water use by up to 20% and abide by California’s first statewide restrictions on outdoor watering. However, the water loss has done more than frustrate citizens: the leaks are not only wasting a valuable and limited resource, but are also damaging property and costing money through lost utilities revenues, resulting in higher rates for water users.
By analyzing reports voluntarily submitted to the Department of Water Resources in 2010, the San Jose Mercury News found a high number of problematic losses: 3.5% of water leaked in Antioch, 5.2% was lost in Santa Clara, and as much as 13% in Los Altos and 15.75% in Hayward escaped from the pipe system. In total, leaks, breaks and overflows cost the East Bay Municipal Utility as much as 9.2% of its water production in 2012, or 6.028 billion gallons. However, because there are no mandatory or standard auditing processes for California’s 362 urban water providers, the newspaper states that it is difficult to accurately judge how much water the state is losing. Further complicating matters is the fact that reporting pipeline leaks is only recommended and not required, allowing many suppliers to submit estimates rather than accurate numbers. A bill is currently being pushed through the state Senate to require reported water losses.
But the main problem behind California’s water losses is likely the state of the pipes themselves. The two most common types of pipes in the Bay Area, for example, are cast iron and asbestos cement, both of which are nearing the end of their life spans. Additionally, many towns in California are built on clay soil, which expands and contracts, putting pressure on the pipelines. The Bay Area especially is considered an unstable landscape due to its tendency towards landslides and fault lines.
Unfortunately, detecting breaks in underground water pipes can be extremely difficult, as the damage is hidden from view and water can seep for long periods before it is noticed. And because the water flows through a high pressure network, experts largely consider some losses inevitable. Moreover, some reported leaks may not be true leaks at all: faulty meters, data-handling errors, theft and even firefights can appear to be water losses.
Due to the steady aging of water systems, the American Water Works Association has deemed this period “the dawn of the replacement era”, estimating that replacing and adding on to pipe networks could cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. This process is already visible, as the San Jose Water Co. recently announced that they would be increasing monthly bills by 15% to cover the costs of replacing 24 miles of pipe every year, with further increases to follow. However, considering the rate of water being lost in the middle of the recent, historic drought, this may be a price well worth paying.