Above-ground water storagetower (photographed Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018) of Parish Utilities of Ascension, which serves the city Donaldsonville, is one of the storage facilities overwhelmed by high demand that caused a water outage in the city, due to recent sub-freezing temperatures. The former Peoples Water Service Company was purchased last year by the parish.

Ever since Ascension Parish bought Peoples Water in Donaldsonville in the fall of 2016, the parish officials entrusted with operating the decades-old water system have embarked on a period of discovery about what they really got for taxpayers' dollars.

One of the big questions has been why the formerly private utility serving 3,200 customers primarily in the city limits of the west bank Ascension city has so much water being used and not paid for, so called "non-revenue water."

More than a year after Peoples Water purchase, parish officials trying to figure out whether it was a good deal

Ascension infrastructure director William Daniel recently told parish councilmen he thinks he knows at least part of the answer: old, inaccurate water meters.

"We think that our meters are not reading 100 percent correctly," Daniel told the Parish Council Utilities Committee last week. 

In one month last year, the former Peoples Water system, now known as Parish Utilities of Ascension, had losses of more than 24 million gallons per month, around 46 percent of the system's overall production. 

An aging system with old distribution pipes, leaks and losses from breaks has been one major consideration, but officials have suggested there was more going on, perhaps unpaid for usage.

A new report for January production backs up Daniel's latest conclusion, estimating that nearly 6.1 million gallons of the system's 19.1 million gallons in "non-revenue water" was missed because household meters weren't counting it.

In effect, the system's meters were under-billing some portion of its customers, previously unknown to them or the water system.

The finding is the latest hiccup for the parish-owned system, which has run into problems in recent months, including a brief and unexpected water shutdown from heavy demand during a cold snap in early January that shut several other smaller water systems.

Ascension official admits preparations lacking for the freeze; cold overwhelms Donaldsonville water plant

Some of the former Peoples Water meters have been in the field for 20 to 30 years, Daniel said, but only have their accuracy guaranteed for 10 years. In a later interview, Daniel said there was little chance the inaccurate meters were over-billing customers because the meters' calculations start with the amount of water flowing into the house and so can't count more than actually physically goes through the line.

"According to the meter manufacturer, I don't believe you pay for more water than you get," Daniel said.

How many meters are inaccurate remains unclear. Based on his discussions with the meters' manufacturer, Daniel gave the committee a very rough estimate that 25 percent were under-billing usage but he acknowledged under questioning from the councilmen that the percentage could be far higher or lower.

What that percentage of inaccurate meters ends up being will affect how much water is actually lost due to under-billing. The administration plans to test a random sample of meters over the next 30 days to get a better idea of the situation. 

Daniel said the administration has also explored $900,000 in new meters for the system, which would be guaranteed for 20 years of accuracy. But that cost is yet another item in the parish's growing list of future upgrades for the water system.

The administration has been tasked with creating that list. The council wants it, as well as clear ideas about how much water the system makes and loses and how much that costs, so council members can determine whether and how much of a rate increase the city system needs.  

Daniel told the council committee he believes the system may have posted a small loss in 2017, around $20,000, but was really a money maker. That negative bottom line included costs to supply part of a parallel Ascension water district that previously had to its buy water. Still, Daniel said, major capital improvements are different matter from operational costs, though the big upgrades can be paid for over the decades. 

Daniel characterized the revelation about the faulty meters and the rough estimates of under-billing as an improvement in understanding the system's operations. But the administration hasn't figured out where the rest of the 19.1 million gallons in "non-revenue" water was going in January or in prior months. 

In addition to the under-billed water, the system lost another 4.9 million gallons in leaks, according to the January production report. But the remaining 8.2 million gallons in "non-revenue" water remained unaccounted for in that month.

Councilman Randy Clouatre, who chairs the Council Utilities Committee, welcomed Daniel's attempts to put the system's operations into clearer focus.

"Sometimes when you find out the truth and you trust what you see, it either scares you or makes you happy," Clouatre said. 

"That's correct," Daniel said. "Very good way of stating it."  

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.