Our Water

Can utilities control their water losses?

Some North Carolina utilities are desperate for more water. Others don’t know where their treated water goes, wasting revenues – and a public resource – because of inaccurate meters, leaky pipes and shaky data.

Nineteen public water systems, in reports filed in 2012, couldn’t account for one-third or more of their “non-revenue” water. Three small systems – Stumpy Point on the coast, Teachey southeast of Raleigh and Fairfield Sapphire in the mountains – lost track of two-thirds of their water.

“These systems have inherited business practices that are just not right,” said Steve Cavanaugh, whose Winston-Salem consulting firm urges systems to audit where their water goes. “It’s millions, millions of dollars in (losses) by utilities in North Carolina. It’s just amazing.”

Utilities nationwide lose track of 2 trillion gallons of water a year. That amounts to an average of $35 in lost revenue per customer every year, the American Water Works Association says.

Because customers, not taxpayers, support most public utilities, revenue losses are their losses too.

Cavanaugh got good responses to his pleas during the drought years of 2007 and 2008. Attention waned once rain returned, a dropoff he attributes in part to an aversion to regulation.

“Utilities have not yet made the correlation or the business case for doing this – you know, our water is so cheap here,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re busy, they’re cash strapped, and to them it’s just another paper exercise. But if a beer company was losing 20 percent of its beer sales, it would be a big deal.”

Bruce Henderson