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Drops in the bucket

Profile image for By John D. Harden / Staff Writer
By John D. Harden / Staff Writer

Repair work, leak detection underway to save water, but experts say more is needed

Thousands of water and sewer line connections stretch for miles underneath Denton County and its cities, creating a labyrinthine network that only a few public officials can navigate.

Each day, millions of gallons of drinking water are pumped through this complex network to be delivered to area residents. But sometimes water intended for consumption doesn’t make it to its destination — escaping through uncharted cracks in the maze.

State data from 2010 show that Denton County public water suppliers report losing a combined 1.6 billion gallons, or 7.5 percent, of their drinking water and wastewater annually through line breaks, leaks and other factors.

The data comes from public water audits of 25 suppliers in the county, collected by the Texas Water Development Board.

Though the numbers can fluctuate from year to year, water development board officials say the audits are accurate snapshots of the amount of water that suppliers lose each year.

“The audits allow us to understand where our resources are going, and so far, the numbers have been pretty consistent,” said John Sutton, the board’s municipal water conservation team leader.

Some breaks and leaks can cause roads to close, neighborhoods to flood and businesses to shut down. But the majority of fissures are unseen and go undetected.

And because most water suppliers — including the city of Denton — purchase their water from other sources, the water loss results in millions of taxpayer dollars lost each year.

In 2010, public water systems in Denton County reported losing a combined $3 million in water from leaks, breaks, faulty meters and other factors. Denton and Lewisville reported losing more than $1.6 million collectively, state data shows.

That does not include the millions of dollars local suppliers have spent to improve their water systems after state water audits revealed large quantities of drinking water going to waste.

Officials in Pilot Point have discussed plans to replace nearly 20 miles of water lines after discovering that the city loses a quarter of its water a year, according to state data.

State documents show that suppliers across Texas are addressing the same problem. The issue was addressed during this past legislative session, when several lawmakers made water conservation a part of their platforms.

The water development board and legislators successfully pushed several water conservation bills through, including House Bill 3606, which calls for large water suppliers to submit water audits more frequently instead of every five years.

“It’s still a little too early to tell if the audits are helping, but we’re taking the steps in the right direction,” Sutton said.

Conserving water has become an important topic in Texas because some believe that the state’s current resources soon won’t be enough to sustain the population.

Water development board officials estimate the state will use an additional 330 billion gallons of water by 2020 and 1.2 trillion gallons by 2060.

According to state researchers and legislative reports, Texas experienced an “unprecedented drought” in 2010 and 2011 that devastated the state.

Since then, more than 1,000 public water systems have enacted some form of water restrictions. At least 20 water systems have less than a year’s supply of water and are in danger of running dry, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports.

State and local officials hope to curb water loss because demand for water will soon outpace resources across the state if nothing is done, according to experts from the water development board.

Preventing water loss is crucial to preserving resources, and some believe that the state and local leaders should have begun paying attention to water conservation a lot sooner.

“It’s human nature for us to react more passionately toward catastrophic events,” said Michael Nieswiadomy, a professor in the University of North Texas Center for Environmental Economic Studies and Research, who has studied water conservation and demand for more than 30 years. “Right now, water levels are dropping and populations are increasing. We tend to put priority on the problems that are happening right in front of us.”


Scope of water loss

The shores of Lewisville Lake and Ray Roberts Lake have stretched farther and farther away from the waters’ edges since the beginning of last summer. The muddy shores are signs that show where the lakes’ levels rested more than a year ago.

Some boats that once docked on the lakes’ steady waves are now grounded in mud or rock in shallow waters.

Drier-than-average years have resulted in Lewisville Lake losing nearly a quarter of its supply since last summer, and National Weather Service officials predict that the drought will continue or worsen.

“Conservation has to be our long-term solution when and before lake levels drop,” Nieswiadomy said.

If all of the water lost through system deficiencies were collected across the state and turned into a lake, it would be the 16th largest lake in Texas, according to the water development board. The lake would have a capacity slightly smaller than Ray Roberts Lake, but larger than Lewisville Lake, the data states.

The lake would also eclipse Lake Ralph Hall, a proposed $300 million to $400 million lake that the Upper Trinity Regional Water District wants to have operating by 2025 to meet drinking water demands in Denton County.

Development board officials said they hope that by tracking water loss, they can identify ways to save water and delay or eliminate the need for new water supplies where significant water losses are found.

“Building a lake isn’t conservation because all you’re doing is putting a Band-Aid on a problem that will always continue to grow,” Nieswiadomy said. “That’s not to say lakes aren’t needed, but they shouldn’t be the end solution.”

The water that Denton County suppliers provide is a little less than half of what the county demands and uses. The difference is made up by suppliers from outside the county.

Denton County’s water loss might seem like a drop in a bucket compared to Lewisville Lake and Ray Roberts Lake, which can hold 183 billion gallons and 256 billion gallons, respectively.

When one compares how much water some of Denton County’s rural communities use each year, the water losses seem like more than just a drop.

Out of the 44 municipalities in Denton County, a third report using more than a billion gallons of water a year.

The amount of water the county loses each year is enough to supply at least a dozen of the county’s smallest municipalities.

It would also be enough to satisfy the projected water demands for Corinth, Lake Dallas, Shady Shores and Hickory Creek in 2060.

The amount would also be enough to meet demands for irrigation, livestock and manufacturing.


Municipal response

Area cities and towns have invested several million dollars in the repair and replacement of water and sewer lines, but water development board reports indicate that more is needed.

The percentage of water lost annually by each public water supply system has increased between 2005 and 2010, according to water audits.

In 2005, Denton and Lewisville reported losing 4.1 percent and 6.7 percent of their water supply, respectively. Five years later, those percentages more than doubled.

A spokeswoman for the state development board said 2005 was the first year for the audit and probably is not a good indicator of the loss of water at that time.

Sutton said that sometimes percentages “can be misleading.”

He said the water development board is working on developing other benchmarks that cities can use to grade their systems and determine weaknesses.

For example, a 5 percent water loss for a rural city is small compared to a 5 percent water loss for cities with larger populations, such as Austin, Dallas or Houston, Sutton said.

So for now, water development board officials use a supplier’s percentage of water loss as a guide for assessment, rather than a rule for enforcement.

Several area cities have made efforts to reduce water loss by investing in improvements.

Pilot Point City Manager Tom Adams said aging water and sewer lines are to blame for about a quarter of the city’s water loss.

He said plans to replace the lines are being developed, and the estimated $6 million project will require refinancing the city’s current debt structure and raising water rates.

“That will free up some significant space in our budget, helping with getting that project in place,” Adams said.

Carole Bassinger, Lewisville public services director, said that from 2010 to 2013, the city spent about $3.7 million on new and replacement water lines and on leak detection equipment.

“Water loss is something that occurs in every water system and something all cities work diligently to control,” Bassinger said.

Kenneth Parr, Flower Mound’s public works director, said he hopes that by improving leak detection, the city will reduce water loss.

“Although we aggressively repair any identified leaks within the water distribution system, there are leaks that remain undetectable since they do not result in water reaching the top of the ground,” he said.

Parr said Flower Mound recently initiated a subsurface leak detection program that “has been very successful in locating water leaks.”

Sanger officials have begun work on a $3.9 million project to improve the city water system.

City Manager Mike Brice said Sanger will replace about 5 miles of water lines over the next decade. He said improvements must take place now, or the city will fall further behind.

Denton also decreases water loss by spending about $1.5 million per year to repair and replace water distribution lines through the use of two construction and maintenance crews.

In Denton County, the annual estimated value of water lost from system deficiencies is about $3 million in potential revenue and tax dollars; across the state, residents are losing $400 million a year, state officials estimate.

“Cities have been limping along with investing in infrastructure,” Nieswiadomy said. “And it’s not a Denton County problem or a state problem. It’s a national problem.”

The Environmental Protection Agency reports there are about 237,600 water line-related breaks per year in the United States, leading to about $2.8 billion lost in potential revenue and tax dollars annually.

The U.S. has about 880,000 miles of drinking water infrastructure and the EPA predicts there will be at least an $11 billion annual shortfall over the next 20 years in funds necessary to replace aging facilities and meet existing and future drinking water regulations.

The deterioration of the infrastructure of these drinking water systems has become a critical issue, according to the EPA.

Population growth can also put additional strain on water systems. And as one of the fastest-growing regions in Texas, the lifespan of many North Texas water systems are aging quickly, Nieswiadomy said.


Future solutions

Denton County resident Susan Nichols said she understands the importance of saving water, but doesn’t practice what she believes to be true.

“I know we shouldn’t think this way, but I think there’s a mentality that running out of water isn’t a possibility or that things always work out before it gets worse here in Denton.”

She said she thinks many residents share her beliefs and that it’s a result of a lack of education on the issue.

“I think it’s a difficult thing to grasp that we can run out of water,” she said.

Nieswiadomy said residents in regions with plentiful water supplies have different mentalities than people in regions where water resources are limited.

“In East Texas, when lake levels drop everyone knows it, because they have very tight restrictions on water usage,” he said.

Local cities and organizations in North Texas have pushed for changing how residents conserve water. Officials have stated that the efforts have been positive.

The city of Denton started a campaign called Sustainable Denton, part of which encourages residents to be more aware of their water usage.

But practicing conservation and meeting water demands for Texas’ growing population have been discussed for decades.

According to regional water and wastewater master plans from the 1980s and ’90s, leaders discussed ways to expand and improve drinking water supplies to ensure there was enough for everyone.

Officials also discussed replacing water systems before they started to decay to avoid waste and shortages.

“In the ’80s, our water systems were nearly 30 years younger. There was no need to worry about the condition of our water systems [at the time],” Nieswiadomy said. “But what happened was that the problem was out of sight and gradually worsened.

“Things like roads are always being repaired, because people can clearly see a pothole. But an underground leak is a different story.”

Early water development board projections did not account for the booming population growth in North Texas, which has strained the water infrastructure.

State estimates from 1997 predicted that water demands in Denton County communities would be less than half of what they are using now. State officials also believed the county wouldn’t be at its current level of water demand until 2050.

It wasn’t until 2003 that lawmakers passed legislation requiring public water utilities to audit their systems once every five years, which would help suppliers gauge the performance of their systems.

In one report, the EPA referred to Texas as a leader in the push to control water loss.

The audits allowed officials to see that Texas lost about 16 percent of its water due to leaks and breaks.

Since then, lawmakers have continued to make strides in conserving the state’s water supplies, and it didn’t hurt to have the worst drought on record hit just before the 83rd Legislature, Sutton said.

The 2011 drought made enough of an impact on lawmakers that it resulted in the passage of several bills designed to assist the state’s efforts to reduce water loss and develop water conservation plans, he said.

Lawmakers passed House Bill 4, which many in Austin referred to as “landmark water legislation.”

The bill, which goes into effect this fall, creates a $2 billion fund from the state’s “rainy day fund” that provides a loan program for water-related projects. In November, Texans can vote to give the water development board the authority to distribute loans to cities or suppliers that apply.

Lawmakers expect to fund up to $25 billion in water projects during the next five decades through the loan program.

In a statement, Gov. Rick Perry said water is essential to life and protecting resources ensures the state will stay strong.

HB 4 will create new funds that will support local and regional projects and lower the cost of issuing bonds for much-needed water projects, even through rapid population and economic growth, Perry said.

However, according to the water development board, that fund will help the state but it will only scratch the surface of what needs to be done.

The board’s water plan outlines $53 billion in water-related projects across the state. North Texas accounts for almost half that amount because of the area’s booming population. Denton County’s population of 667,000 is expected to triple in the next five decades, and the county’s demands for water will more than double.

State and local officials said they hope that enacting water restrictions, informing residents about water-saving fixtures and promoting conservation will encourage people to assist with efforts to limit water usage.

“What some people don’t understand is that our drinkable water supply isn’t infinite,” Nieswiadomy said. “Populations will always grow, but our water supplies won’t. It’s a balancing act to make this all work, and it starts with us and conservation.”

JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.