Letter To The Editor: Wow!

Los Alamos

In February of 2014 and again in May of 2015 we were surprised by a knock on our door. A utilities crew told us they were coming into our yard to find a leak. Looking over our back fence, each time we discovered a river of the county’s water emanating from our yard and washing across our neighbors’ yards and into the street.

The water main runs through our neighbor’s backyard and connects to our delivery line there. This was followed by a backhoe and other equipment crossing our other neighbor’s yard and tearing down the fences and a couple of days of a half dozen guys digging up and chasing down the leak, heavy equipment parked on the street. And – the second event was followed by a bill for nearly $6,000: the county’s announcement that the leak they found was in the delivery line pipe that under their rules we were responsible for.

That $6,000 bill triggered my WTF response. In a series of letters I will tell you what I did and what I found. In capsule form, I conclude the County-owned water distribution system is a physical, fiscal, and managerial mess.

I collected data from the Department of Public Utilities using the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). I received data on studies of the water system and its leak history, and records for work the county has done on and off private property to find and fix water leaks, including whether or not the property owner was billed. I studied the rules and regulations of the DPU, county ordinances, and state law. I wrote a report and presented it to the Utilities Board with Power Point, and discussed my findings with a subcommittee appointed to look into the matter.

In this first letter I describe the condition of the water distribution system and what the Utilities Department, the Utilities Board, and the Council are doing about it.

A study was done in 2007 called a Water System Assessment. It details the history of the water system, appended maps that show the location, ages, and materials of the pipes that form the water distribution system, and makes recommendations. It finds that in the older parts of town, Eastern Area (where we live), Western Area, and North Community, the pipes in the distribution system were at the end of their lifetimes, vulnerable to corrosion and vibration, and have an ever-increasing potential for failures that will result in a lot of damage to private property and backyard excavation. It recommends the lines should be replaced over the course of two or three decades.

Annually the DPU brings in a consulting firm to find and locate leaks in one approximately 18 mile segment of the total of 162 miles of pipe in the distribution system, using sonic techniques. Each of the annual reports (starting in 2007) describes its finding for a segment including an estimate of the amount of water loss for each leak. Using mathematical techniques that would make a statistician blush I was able to annualize that data and extrapolate it over the entire system and estimate that the annual water losses to leaks are about 135 million gallons. 

The repair records indicate that most leaks are not found this way but by reports from the community.

In its annual water consumption reports the DPU calculates an annual “consumption loss” of 148 million gallons. Until now they have not been able to determine whether this loss is due to leakage or to faulty water meters, so they have embarked on a massive and expensive program to replace all the water meters. At our water rate of $4.19 per thousand gallons these numbers represent a financial loss to the county of over a half million dollars per year. Compare that to water system annual operating deficit the last three years of $1.3 M to $1.5 M.

Meantime the DPU brags that our water rates run about 2/3 of the rates in neighboring communities.

The DPU has been slowly replacing or lining old pipes at an annual rate that ranges between a half and one million dollars per year. I found no analysis that demonstrates this is enough to keep up with the deterioration of the system that was described in the 2007 Assessment. 

After reporting all this to the Utilities Board, the DPU and the subcommittee, I suggested that perhaps they should undertake an update to the 2007 study and include an analysis of the replacement program to determine if the level of expenditure is adequate to prevent the potentially catastrophic deterioration of the water distribution system in the older parts of town that can be expected from the conditions described in the Assessment.

At the April meeting of the Utilities board the subcommittee reported that they could find no reason to do an updated study, that they had determined (by means not clearly stated) that the replacement program is satisfactory, and no action should be taken on any of my data or recommendations. Most members seemed to agree, but the Chair demurred on a different issue (more in another letter) and the board put off a final vote on the decision to the May meeting.

Meantime the Department and the Board sent the clearest message possible: incredibly, they zeroed out the water line replacement budget! Zero! One hundred percent reduction!

And at the council hearing on the utilities budget, the council approved it!