Austin’s aging water pipes leaked 6 billion gallons in a year

Investigations

Investigative Summary:

KXAN investigated Austin’s water loss, enough to fill Lady Bird Lake twice, in 2015. Now, the city is losing more water through leaks and pipes, more than six billion gallons in 2018 alone. KXAN investigator Kevin Clark questioned Austin Water’s Director about the losses, while City Council’s new Water Oversight Committee also works to address the losses.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Kristine Poland says she woke up one morning in late-September to find her street flooded.

A 12-inch water line blew along Woodrow Avenue, drenching the Brentwood neighborhood.

“I was pulling out of my driveway,” Poland told us, “And I see this geyser, it’s flooding the people across the street.”

Austin Water says the cause of the break is still not known.

When we met with Poland in mid-October, the leak was fixed. However, Public Works crews were fixing the damage it caused to the street.

This is the second time in seven years a water line has blown in Poland’s neighborhood.

As KXAN learned, the number of these breaks in Austin have continued to increase in the years since our initial investigation.

In 2015, the water lost from pipe leaks could fill Lady Bird Lake — twice.

Billions of gallons in drinking water lost. Millions of dollars lost for ratepayers.

“I don’t think that you have to live here very long to drive down a street and see it shut down or detoured,” said Poland.

The numbers

“Real losses” is a term for actual drinking water lost from city pipes. The city separately tracks accounting losses.

In 2018, the utility had real losses of more than 6.1 billion gallons. The cost of those real losses was nearly $2.37 million.

It’s only the second time the city has lost more than six billion gallons of drinking water in a year.

Only in 2017 did city lose more water, climbing above 6.5 billion gallons lost.

“The infrastructure is clearly aging,” said Poland. “Our neighborhood was built in the late 1940’s and we are adding a lot of development.”

In our previous report, we told you in 2014, the city leaked nearly 4.8 billion gallons of water. In 2015, that number was more than 5.8 billion gallons.

We brought the numbers to Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros, who oversees the city’s distribution system of well over 4,000 miles.

“It’s a challenge to keep up with a system that big,” he said.

When asked about the increasing number of pipe breaks, Meszaros mentioned a variety of factors, including weather extremes, shifting soil, and previously installed types of infrastructure that haven’t aged well.

“Sometimes it’s not just age that drives infrastructure, but the type and the size,” said Meszaros. “Some are more prone to break than others.”

Utility not meeting goals to replace infrastructure

As the number of pipes continued to break, the city implemented “Renewing Austin” in 2012.

Some of the city’s old cast-iron pipes were built in the 1930’s. Under Renewing Austin, the city would replace and upgrade those aging water pipes.

Courtesy: Austin History Center.

The city prioritizes which pipes come first based on a variety of factors. It also tries to coordinate utility projects with Austin Transportation projects, to limit neighborhood interruptions.

“We see break patterns, maybe we see undersized infrastructure, or where we want to improve fire protection and fire flows,” said Meszaros.

Austin Water says the goal is to replace 10 miles per year.

However, in eight years, the utility has only replaced a total of 43 miles, and relocated another 42.

KXAN asked Meszaros why the utility hasn’t been meeting its own goal.

“Well, it’s a plan,” he said. “As our thinking and knowledge increases, we shift our focuses to benefit the dollars we spend.”

Future utility plans

Meszaros tells us Austin Water will now be taking on a more data-driven approach.

“When we first started Renewing Austin, we were almost exclusively investing in replacing infrastructure in the street, and now we’re thinking that we have to have a better balance between these different types of infrastructures.”

Over the next few years, the utility plans to invest $80 million dollars in a “digital metering system” that Meszaros says will detect leaks in real time.

Right now the utility is only able to read the meter once a month.

Austin Water also uses remote sensing to detect leaks in the system before rehabbing and replacing infrastructure.

“A lot of our leaks don’t come to the surface, so we have to use remote sensing technologies to find those leaks,” said Meszaros.

But Poland, like many ratepayers, works hard to conserve water in the drier months. And she sees the evidence of water lost right in her neighborhood.

“We’re saving drops in a bucket, and the bucket gets emptied very quickly, it seems,” she said.

District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool will ask a newly-formed Council Water Committee to place this issue on the agenda of its first meeting next year.

“I think we have to always be concerned about the infrastructure,” District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, who’s also on the water committee, said, when asked about the water leaks.

Photojournalist Ed Zavala, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Producer Anthony Cave, Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle and Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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