The Numbers Behind New Jersey’s Leaking Water Systems

Photo: This water main break in Hoboken on December 1 slows traffic on Willow Avenue approaching the Lincoln Tunnel. Marisa Iati, NJ Advance Media for

Every water system leaks.  But residents of Newton in Sussex County, New Jersey, got an especially unwelcome surprise this past Thanksgiving.  A 16-inch water main break erupted from under Sparta Avenue, forcing water service to be cut off to 8,000 residents over the holiday.  Yikes!  Big water main breaks like this are frequently in the news, but in reality, only a fraction of main breaks actually make the news, and only a small fraction of all the water lost from water utility pipes actually comes from breaks that are visible above ground.  Much more water is lost from leaks that continue below ground and out of sight for months and even years.

A new report released by NRDC today begins to shed some light on the largely hidden loss of drinking water across New Jersey. The report’s author, George Kunkel, is a highly regarded expert on municipal water loss recently retired from service with the Philadelphia Water Department, where he did pioneering work to quantify the enormous losses from that city’s water distribution piping and helped author the manual on municipal water loss audits published by the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

A water loss audit is an essential building block for establishing an effective program to find and fix leaks and breaks that cost customers money and place water quality at risk.  Unlike some other states tracked by NRDC, New Jersey does not yet have a requirement for water suppliers to assess and report on their water losses using standardized terms and methodology published by the AWWA.  The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does require a report on water supply and customer consumption data every two years, but a standardized AWWA audit report is an option, not a requirement.  Even after the Department issued an official drought warning last fall, DEP strongly urged, but did not require, utilities to conduct a water audit.

However, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), an interstate agency headquartered in West Trenton, does have such a requirement, and the Kunkel report carefully reviewed all 76 audits filed in 2013 by water utilities in the New Jersey portion of the Delaware Basin and used them to generate eye-opening estimates of water losses statewide.Within the Delaware Basin in New Jersey:

  • Based on data reported to the DRBC, the loss of treated drinking water occurred at a rate of nearly 15 million gallons per day in 2013.  This equates to a loss of about 21 gallons per customer connection per day, with many utilities losing substantially more than this amount.
  • In addition, the data reported by these 76 utilities indicated an additional 2 million gallons per day going unbilled, largely through faulty measurement and billing practices.
  • Taken together, a conservative value for these losses is $7.75 million dollars per year.

Based on the reported data, an extrapolation to all water utilities statewide produced the following estimates:

  • An estimated 130 million gallons per day treated drinking water are being lost each day across New Jersey;
  • Out of this total, over 50 million gallons per day of water losses, conservatively valued at over $10 million per year, are likely to be cost-effective for utilities to save.  (This amount of water is equal to the water use of about 700,000 New Jersey residents, or a population 2½ times the size of Newark, the state’s largest city);
  • An additional $12 million per year in lost revenue is likely to be cost-effective for utilities to recover through improved water measurement and billing practices.

Questions involving water infrastructure improvements often quickly turn to costs.  But these  conservative estimates suggest that many water suppliers in New Jersey would find it economical for themselves and their customers to get started right away to reduce water losses and recover lost revenue.

Some water managers may want to avoid talking about these statistics, concerned that discussions of water loss might cast their management in a bad light.  But today’s managers are typically not responsible for the disinvestment and neglect of the buried infrastructure that has occurred in decades past.  Rather, we look to today’s leaders to improve performance going forward.  Thoughtful managers recognize that the public is largely unaware of the need for continual monitoring, assessment, and preventive maintenance to reduce the waste of water and maintain the physical integrity of the water distribution system, and they are actually anxious to talk about it.

Annual water loss audits are the first step towards achieving cost-effective reductions in water loss. These audits can be readily conducted by any water utility, at minimal cost. AWWA makes available free auditing software, and its water loss manual is available for about $100. Audits are typically performed with modest investment of time by existing utility staff.  NRDC has worked with the Jersey Water Works collaborative to promote water loss audits to local officials through the Sustainable Jersey municipal certification program.

NRDC recommends four steps that could be taken now to make critical (and credible) water audit information available statewide in New Jersey:

  1. New Jersey DEP should improve its management of water audit data currently collected by removing vague and obsolete terminology from water system reports, to be replaced by AWWA terms and reporting format.
  2. Similarly, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities should standardize the reporting on water losses it requires from state-regulated investor-owned water companies using AWWA terms and methods.
  3. The New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which administers low-interest rate loans to municipalities and water suppliers for water infrastructure projects, should consider allocating funds designated for state programs to support water audit training and validation, as other states have done.
  4. New Jersey should consider establishing an annual water loss reporting and disclosure requirement for all water suppliers, as outlined in NRDC’s Model State Water Loss Audit legislation.

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“Report of the Evaluation of Water Audit Data for New Jersey Water Utilities.”  January 10, 2017.  George Kunkel, Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting, Philadelphia, PA.

About the Author:  George Kunkel is Principal of Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting, a firm that specializes in water loss control in drinking water utilities. He has over 36 years of water utility and consulting experience and led the successful water loss control program in Philadelphia for over 20 years. He is active in the American Water Works Association, having served in multiple roles, including chair of the Water Loss Control Committee. Mr. Kunkel is currently the chair of the subcommittee that publishes AWWA’s M36 guidance manual on water loss control and is a co-author of the AWWA Free Water Audit Software. He has been involved in many water loss control projects in AWWA and the Water Research Foundation; and he was the recipient of the 2010 Water Star Award from the Alliance for Water Efficiency and the AWWA Peak Performance Award in 2016.


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