The problem is simple: The water industry doesn't have a consistent set of standards for water accounting, and there's little emphasis, in terms of legislation and regulation, on the need to motivate water suppliers to control their losses. AWWA is providing a solution by developing standard definitions—and providing free water audit software—to eliminate the concept of “unaccounted water loss.” In addition to Texas, Georgia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington have initiated or passed legislation based on this approach.

The lack of standardization is understandable, considering that the North American water supply was once considered abundant. After all, we have the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Great Lakes, the Rio Grande, and other bodies of water. There wasn't a need for water utilities to meter water, charge for certain kinds of uses, or even worry about “unaccounted-for” water losses. But population growth, droughts, catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, and regional water shortages are straining the water supply so much that a 2005 survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors predicts that 35% of the nation's cities will face critical water shortages within 10 to 20 years.

Yet many public water utilities do not have efficient water loss management programs in place.

“Of 40 billion gallons of water withdrawn each day by U.S. water utilities, 6 billion are ‘lost',” says Tom Jakubowski, chair of AWWA's water loss control committee. That “lost” amount is enough to meet the needs of the 10 largest U.S. cities.

Most water losses are caused by leaks and inaccurate meter readings, problems that can be easily detected and fixed with today's technologies. This is why AWWA sees recovering water ‘loss'as one of the most promising resource initiatives in North America.

Water Is Not Free

Much like for-profit manufacturers, public water utilities are making a product: safe drinking water.

“They're treating it and pumping it, and there are costs involved in that,” says Jakubowski, who is also the national director for water accountability with HDR Inc., an Omaha, Neb.-based architectural, engineering, and consulting firm. “‘Lost'[treated] water is money out of a utility's pocket, and a waste of a natural resource.”

There are two types of water losses. Real losses are physical losses, including leakage and storage overflows. Apparent losses are paper losses, including meter inaccuracies, billing data errors, and unauthorized consumption. Real losses can inflate the utility's production costs and deplete water resources. Apparent losses decrease revenue and distort customer consumption data.

Either way, the utility is losing money.

Yet in the past many water utilities, policymakers, and associations—including AWWA—deemed a 10% to 15% “unaccounted-for” water loss as acceptable. In an exclusive PUBLIC WORKS survey, 70% of respondents report loss rates of 15% or less.