water pipes leak $23 million a year
billion gallons never reach Metro Detroit homes
John Bebow / The Detroit News
As Metro Detroiters
endure the annual mid-summer ritual of water rationing and
pressure problems, they are also paying an estimated $23
million this year for water that never reaches homes and
That is the cost of more than 35 billion
gallons of fresh, clean water leaking from Detroit water
pipes every year in the 126 communities the system serves.
That's enough water to fill a large, 4-foot-deep
swimming pool 1.6 million times. Or bathe every person in
Metro Detroit in one shower per day for a year. Or fill
one billion beer kegs.
And that ocean of lost water doesn't include
millions of additional gallons washing away in water-main
breaks, leaks and broken meters in lines owned by the suburbs.
The city of Detroit charges suburbs for pumping fresh water
to each community's boundary. From there, each suburb is
responsible for building and maintaining all water lines
to homes and businesses.
The water loss irritates Charlene Green,
a Livonia resident who has paid high water bills so she
and her son could enjoy a back-yard pool. "I don't want
to pay for a problem that wasn't initiated by me," she said.
The water loss is not good news, but "that's
the reality in a water system that is this large and this
old," said George Ellenwood, public affairs manager for
the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage.
As many of the 4 million customers served
by the Detroit system continue to endure rising rates, brown
lawns and dribbling faucets, the many leaks are inevitable
and costly to fix, water experts say.
In recent documents, Detroit water officials
claim older pipes in its 3,700-mile-long water delivery
network "continue to serve patrons just fine" and contend
"the level of unaccounted-for water is good."
Experts elsewhere agree Detroit's leaks
are relatively normal, but say officials here could make
the system more efficient.
"Your water loss isn't bad for a big city
with an old system," said Ken Brothers, a leading water-loss
prevention consultant to the American Water Works Association.
While there is no comprehensive study
on the topic, Brothers estimates the amount of fresh water
unaccounted for because of leaky pipes and bad meters ranges
from 10 percent to 40 percent of all the water pumped in
the United States and around the world.
Detroit loses 17 percent of the water
it pumps through the system.
Pipes in many systems, including Detroit's,
date back generations. Many were made in the World War II
era, when the best materials went to the war effort, not
water distribution, Brothers said.
"We're paying the price today," Brothers
said. "The systems are just getting old. Leakage is a worldwide
problem. We're losing a wagon load of water."
Joe Karalla, owner of Van Dyke Pools in
"You're kidding," he said when told of
the amount of water lost in the Detroit system. "That's
a lot of water, buddy."
Overhaul beyond means
The idea that Detroit's rate of water
loss isn't bad for an aging system provides little solace
in parched Metro Detroit.
With only a couple of brief rainstorms
between the beginning of June and Sunday, many Metro Detroiters
are now threatened with fines and jail for breaking water-use
restrictions. Some restaurants and other businesses have
shortened hours because of pressure problems. Officials
contend dry weather and heavy summer use -- not leaky pipes
-- are responsible for chronic summer water pressure problems
in the region.
But the lost water is reflected in bills
paid by every household whose water comes from the Detroit
Detroit has raised water rates for all
city and suburban customers five times in the past seven
years. The department is in the middle of a $7 billion capital
improvement program, "but replacing the whole system would
cost billions and billions of dollars," Ellenwood said.
"It would be totally unreasonable to tear it all up and
In contrast to Michigan, Illinois forces
cities to keep water systems as watertight as possible.
Some 200 municipal systems in Illinois
draw water from Lake Michigan. Each is required to keep
water loss to 8 percent of all water pumped, said Dan Injerd,
chief of Lake Michigan management for the Illinois Department
of Natural Resources.
"It's a no-brainer," Injerd said. "It
doesn't cost systems money to comply with that standard.
It costs them money not to comply."
Michigan has no similar rule, Injerd said.
The Illinois standard originated in the 1970s, in part to
defray criticism that some distant Illinois communities
pumped water from Lake Michigan even though they weren't
in the lake's watershed, he said.
"We now recognize this program is one
of the most important things we can do to conserve water,"
Cities in Illinois that don't comply with
the 8 percent standard are required to develop improvement
plans. Chicago, for example, can't account for 11 percent
of its water, but steady repairs have reduced daily consumption
there by some 140 million gallons a day from several years
ago, Injerd said.
Plans to plug further
The Detroit system has spent nearly $1
million annually on leak detection in recent years.
"I can build a pretty strong business
case that you should be spending more," said Brothers, the
A contract now before the Detroit City
Council would increase annual leak-detection and replacement
funds to $3.5 million.
"We're trying to deal with this in an
aggressive fashion," Ellenwood said.
Suburban strategies for handling leaky
pipes vary widely. Northville leaked up to 40 percent of
its water supply in the early 1990s, said James Gallogly,
the city's public works director.
Now, the city pays $3,000 a year to a
consultant who finds leaks through an electronic listening
system. As a result, the city has saved millions of gallons
and dropped its water-loss rate to 10 percent, Gallogly
"If we could all just button up our systems
just a little bit, it would make a big difference," he said.
The Southeastern Oakland County Water
Authority, which serves seven suburbs on the Detroit pipeline,
plans to soon test for water loss for the first time in
several years, said John Shandoval, an engineer with the
"We know we've got some problems," he
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