I am asked this question all the time: “Why aren’t more utilities doing this?” It usually comes from a water loss control team member of a utility that has just discovered how much money they can recover through good water loss control strategies. Sometimes, it comes from utility managers in drought-stricken areas that are concerned over the sustainability of their water supply if water loss is not addressed by all that share their supply. Regardless, it is a good question, and one that I consider quite often.
I am not alone. It seems those that have gained exposure to innovative water loss control strategies ask this same question, and later ask of themselves: “What took me so long?” Thankfully, this is a growing community dialogue, so we can get some help from each other in figuring this out. To spur your considerations as to why some utilities continue to resist looking for non-revenue water, I’d like to share the following list that was compiled by Mary Ann Dickinson, President of the Alliance for Water Efficiency for presentation at a panel on “Water Loss Impacts and Opportunities” held on December 8, 2015 as part of the first North American Water Loss Conference (NAWL) in Atlanta, Georgia. The benefits of analyzing apparent and real losses in a utility system are so clear as to be irrefutable. Utilities can recover significant revenue as well as cost‐effective supply from fixing their leaks. So why are utilities not flocking to examine NRW? Here are a few of the top 10 barriers from Mary Ann and our take on this problem:
1. General Managers and Board Members assume that the NRW solutions are too costly and unaffordable, and therefore surmise that better evaluation of NRW is pointless. Water sales revenues are down in most utilities because of declines in per capita consumption, and there is no easy discretionary money anymore. There is a fear on the part of many finance directors that the NRW solutions will be extremely costly (new meters, new pipes) and thus unaffordable. So why go look for NRW and let Pandora out of the box?
This one is interesting as it highlights that NRW is by nature an embedded problem – “out of sight, out of mind.” The truth is, even though it can’t be seen, the cost of unmanaged NRW is there and most often exceeds the cost of managed NRW.
2. Lack of dedicated utility funding for NRW is a perceived barrier to progress. The irony is that NRW reduction actions don’t have to be funded out of stressed operating budgets where funds may be already tight; they can be funded out of capital improvement programs (capex) or performance based loans. The payback is excellent: money saved by recovering and selling lost water more than pays for the cost of its recovery.
Conversely, in reality we often see two things regarding this: 1) getting started costs relatively little and 2) NRW can be a self-funding endeavor.
3. There is little government regulation of water loss in most states. Where state policies do exist, they are based on the antiquated “unaccounted for water” percentages, which are not often accurate (see point #1) and can mask the true impact of leakage in different sized water systems. Managing NRW should be a matter of government and regulatory concern. Bond rating agencies are now starting to look at NRW as a way to measure utility system efficiency, but so far government policies and guidance are mostly nonexistent, or just starting to come into fruition.
This is one area we see a tremendous momentum building, as more areas of the U.S. start to put programs in place. 36 states were represented at NAWL in December, and nearly that many are exploring how they can improve from the status quo.
Looking ahead… Water Loss has been decreed a top trend in 2016…. From Georgia to California and beyond, I believe we will see these barriers begin to fall.