CA water agencies resist bill to report water losses from leaky, broken infrastructure

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Update 2:20 p.m. Tuesday: Bill clears Assembly committee

A Senate bill to require utilities to annually audit and publicly report how much water they lose to leaks and pipe breaks passed the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee by a 10-3 vote. The measure, SB 555, if it survives an appropriations committee hearing and Assembly floor vote, would go to the governor to be signed into law.

Previously: While water consumers are pressed to save every drop in the continuing drought, water utilities keep poor track of how much of their supply is lost before it ever reaches faucets - and at least some are resisting a bill to make them report those loses more frequently.

The state Public Utilities Commission in 2010 estimated that 10 percent of the water in urban systems is lost to leaks, and that 40 percent of it could be recovered if utilities better managed system water pressure and targeted leaky pipes for repair or replacement.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has long claimed its water loss is only about 3 to 4 percent, calling L.A.'s water system "tight" when compared with East Coast water departments that lose 30 or more percent of their water.

Madelyn Glickfeld, director of the Water Resources Group at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is troubled by DWP and other agencies' claims. She said some of the world's most conservation-conscious water systems, like those in Israel, employ higher levels of leak detecting technology and still have a hard time keeping losses under 8 percent.

Glickfeld surveyed water retailers in Los Angeles County about their water losses. Of more than 100 retailers, she contacted 20 with her survey and received replies from ten, of which only four actually estimated their losses. Those four said that leaks took 3 to 4 percent of their supply. She said the other agencies do not track the losses or declined to report them. The state currently requires reporting only once every five years.

She said that's not enough.

"If you're in one of these areas that is being asked to reduce your personal water usage by 25 percent, wouldn't you like to know that the water that's being sent to you, that you're paying for, is getting to you?," she said.

"There's no clear way for us to know how these systems are working," she said.

A proposal by Northern California state Sen. Lois Wolk would require water sellers to make annual audited reports on their water losses.

The bill, SB 555, passed the Senate with just two dissenting votes. It's pending before the Assembly and facing opposition from two large water industry groups: The California Municipal Utilities Association and the Association of California Water Agencies.

The bill would need to emerge from the Assembly's Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee this week to survive. Jennifer Persike, a spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies, said her group was in talks with committee members in hopes of changing the bill to be acceptable to her group. For example, it wants water retailers to be exempt from submitting audited reports if they achieve certain minimum level of water loss.

Those who support the bill said it would help the state meet its goal of reducing water use in cities by 20 percent by 2020 - and make the water supply more reliable. A few water agencies and some big water users like Coca Cola Company and brewer MillerCoors support the annual water loss reporting.

Losses can be expensive. The 20 million gallons of water that spewed onto the UCLA campus last July from a broken water main on Sunset Blvd. represented about 3 percent of the DWP's daily supply. That loss cost ratepayers about $50,000, DWP staffers said.

Opponents question what it would cost to stem losses in the distribution system and how the water loss audits would be verified by experts.