Baltimore loses one third of its treated water, data show
Pressed on whether it is still hemorrhaging that much, DPW’s Rudy Chow ducks the question
Above: Water from a broken main floods Charles Street near Preston in December 2017. Most water losses come from unseen breaks, cracks and broken valves in the city’s underground transmission network. (@BaltimoreDPW)
Mayor Catherine Pugh and the Board of Estimates got some startling news today – 35.1% of the water released from Baltimore’s water treatment plants was “lost” before it reached the homes and businesses of city and county customers.
That statistic came from a Department of Public Works audit from fiscal year 2015 that was presented to the board.
Faced with information that was three years old, the board understandably wanted to know if the city was still hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of gallons of water – and tens of millions of dollars.
As BOE President Bernard C. “Jack” Young put it, “I look at water loss as lost revenue.”
But trying to get details about the water losses and what causes them (such as water main breaks, chronic pipe leakage, malfunctioning valves or meters) was frustrated by two DPW officials who circled around and dodged the questions.
For example, in response to a question by Mayor Pugh, DPW Deputy Director Dale Thompson implied that water meters were a major culprit of water loss.
“This is one of the reasons why we are replacing all of the old meters,” Thompson said, in reference to a $83 million contract awarded to Itron Inc. in 2013 to replace the existing meters with an Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) system.
“How close are we finishing the replacement meters? Or have we done that,” Pugh asked.
“I can’t give you that information,” Thompson replied, “but I will provide that.”
“There ought to be a timeline,” the mayor persisted.
“Yes, we do have a timeline,” Thompson said, “but I didn’t have that information with me. But we will provide it.”
DPW Stops Targeting Water Loss
Another revelation that troubled the board: DPW stopped keeping water loss targets in its performance measures, according to Acting City Auditor Audrey Askew.
DPW’s Thompson was asked why, but before she could answer, DPW Director Rudy Chow, a member of the board, asked to speak.
“The response to your question is that, as we are looking at the budget metrics in here, traditionally we have a number of metrics in here. We have deleted and added some metrics into the budget cycle to account for what we feel is more meaningful, more operationally related, data.
“But that doesn’t mean,” Chow cautioned, “that we are no longer tracking all these. We are still tracking all these in the background, just that it’s not appearing in the budget book.”
“We are still tracking all these metrics in the background, just that it’s not appearing in the budget book.” – Rudy Chow.
A seemingly puzzled Jack Young shot back, “I’d like to know if we’re not tracking the water loss – if we’re losing water and not tracking it – how can we account for the water?”
“We are definitely tracking the water loss,” Chow answered. “We do a water loss analysis on an annual basis, and that’s precisely why we are addressing the water main replacement with our aging infrastructure and all that, because the majority of the loss are through these aging pipes.”
Pratt Stymied, Too
Comptroller Joan Pratt then joined the fray, asking if water losses in fiscal 2016 and 2017 had exceeded the 25% target.
“We are still sort of looking because there’s a number of factors” was Chow’s answer. “We’re trying to adopt ourselves with the American Water Works Association, AWWA, standard in terms of tracking water loss. And we are implementing that strategy in the last year or so.”
Blowing past the comptroller’s question, Chow continued, “We don’t have the published number yet, but that’s the methodology that we have adopted now. So now we basically are more unified in terms of the water utilities in the way they measure water loss. Unlike what we have done in the past.”
Bottom Line: “We don’t have the published number yet,” Chow told fellow board members.
In the silence that ensued, Young turned to auditor Askew and said he hoped her department would examine DPW’s recent water loss.
“It’s not scheduled,” Askew replied, “unless you want to do this.”
“Yes,” Young said.
Adding her voice to the mix, Pugh instructed, “One of the things we want to look at is the entire operations, you know.”
“Okay,” Askew said, before the board turned to other business.