Planning With Water (Part 4)

03/09/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Our multi-part series on planning with water continues this week with what hydraulic engineers call "non-revenue water," produced by collection but not valued because of the utility lost to leakage and other forms of waste.

If you think about your own water usage, you can begin to understand what I mean. Whether or not you draw your water from a well or a municipal system, picture in your mind how that water flows through your home, what it provides, and where might be the places or behaviors where the value of that water is lost. Showers, toilet flushes, food preparation, car washes, lawn and garden irrigation -- these represent the major functions of water in the home. For how long do you or your children shower? How many times a day do you flush the toilets? Do you leave the water on when you brush your teeth or wash your dishes? These are all typical points where each of us loses the value of water down the drain, rarely recycled, mostly wasted.

If you take this one phenomenon and add to it theft of water, inaccurate metering, and free use for firefighting and other civic necessities, it totals more than $14 billion lost by water users, managers, and utilities each year due to non-revenue water, as estimated by the Danish Hydraulic Institute.

To understand water use, the Hydraulic Institute conducts water audits, identifying and analyzing the various stages along the distribution chain. The process examines water supplies, owned and imported, to calculate total system input. Against this is measured water supplied and exported, consumption authorized and unauthorized, billed and unbilled consumption, and apparent and real losses to construct a balance sheet that reveals revenue water minus non-revenue water, showing either surplus or deficit derived from the existing system.

These analyses can reveal weaknesses and inefficiencies along the way and can reveal strategies for repair, modification, and increased economies to make the system better. Localized pressure tests and flow meters can point to very specific problems, reduce leaks and blow-outs, and reduce maintenance costs and failure rates, diverting funds to upgrades and replacements. Similar tests can discover areas of deteriorated pipe, broken connections, malfunctioning valves and pumps, and failed or tampered-with meters. In its entirety, the water audit gives a real-time picture of a system that may have been constructed decades previous, sporadically maintained or improved, and in need of a major overhaul or modernization. Finally, this information can provide the data required to make management and financial decisions, accurately predict and allocate budgets over time, and provide a schematic for capital improvement, investment in new technologies, a model for better systems with far greater efficiency and return, and dramatically reduced waste of the most valuable commodity on Earth. All this from a reasonable evaluation of usage in the home or along the path of distribution.

In last week's post I described a much larger audit of the 3-million-square-kilometer area of the Nile River basin. Beyond scale, what is the actual difference between that endeavor and what we might do at home? Indeed, what we do at home is a key place where a change in behavior results in a shift in the data set, representing both baseline information and a measure of resultant improvements. If you take the larger view, then, what you do each day with your water is part of an enormous hydraulic reality by which precious water moves through a global, natural, financial, and political system of distribution and redistribution, through cycles and conveyors that too often corrupt or poison the water consumed. Removing any water from that system, even a single drop, denigrates it and denies it for the future.

If we can understand the peculiarities of our plumbing and habits at home, then we can fix them. The same holds true for a municipal water system, and the same holds true for a watershed, and the same holds true for the ocean, the greatest water system on Earth. Understanding the problem allows us to invent its solution. If we can understand how our patterns of water use and waste are connected, perhaps we can look to solutions evident and possible through planning with water.

More from the "Planning with Water" series: