More than half the water that leaves the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board’s treatment plants may be seeping through broken pipes and into the ground before it reaches customers — an amount of waste that is far out of line with other utilities, according to a new report from a consultant hired to study the problem.
All that wasted water — and the millions of gallons more that go to hydrants and other public uses that aren't billed — accounts for almost 20 percent of the cost of running the water system, according to the report, adding further strain to a utility that has faced financial instability for years.
The new findings are in step with estimates given by S&WB officials in recent years and, in fact, suggest that the overall amount of lost water has been ticking downward over the past decade. But the figures suggest the scope of the problems facing the S&WB and the magnitude of the repairs that are needed.
“The rate of water loss due to our aging infrastructure is unacceptable,” S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban said in a statement in response to questions about the audit. “We must make it a priority to upgrade this fundamental service for the sake of the city and all our customers.”
The audit, conducted by the Colorado-based consulting firm Freeman LLC, examined the S&WB’s water losses from 2008 to 2017.
Leaks have long been a problem for the S&WB. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the utility lost about 60 million gallons of water per day, according to a 2015 report on proposed improvements to the water system put together by FEMA.
When the Katrina levee breaches flooded the city in 2005, its streets were left under massive amounts of water for weeks, further damaging the already decrepit pipes beneath them. FEMA estimated that damage left the system leaking about 90 million gallons per day.
The new report found that leaks today may account for more than 82 million gallons of water processed by the S&WB per day, more than 55 percent of all the water it produces.
The dismal results show the S&WB is far worse off than 21 other utilities used as benchmarks by the American Water Works Association, such as those in Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Alabama; and Louisville, Kentucky.
The S&WB lost almost 10 times as much water per customer as the average amount reported by those utilities and more than four times as much as the worst system in that group.
The report cautioned that the limited amount of information collected by the S&WB made it difficult to pin down exactly where all that water is going and included relatively conservative estimates for the amount that could be unaccounted for due to faulty meters or other problems.
All told, about 70 percent of the water pumped through the system doesn’t make it to paying customers, including water that is provided free to the city for public purposes such as fighting fires or cleaning streets. It costs about $19 million a year to purify that water out of a $100 million budget for the water system.
Beyond the financial problems caused by the lost water, leaks can also play a role in exacerbating the infrastructure issues faced by the city.
Leaking pipes can erode away the soil, contributing to sinkholes and other problems for the city’s roadways, said Stephen Nelson, emeritus professor of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University.
S&WB officials said this week the utility’s next step in fixing the problem is creating systems to get a better handle on exactly where all the missing water is going.