Where's Our Water? A Look at Leaks in Our Region

Aug 7, 2014

Inside the top level of the Webster County Water Treatment Plant. This facility processes some 350 million gallons of water annually.
Credit Parker Franklin


Recent government inspections have revealed multiple leaks in water systems across our region.

At the Webster County Water Treatment plant, operator Roger Brooks says his team processes some 350 million gallons of water each year and as such, leaks are something to keep an eye on.

“We can tell usually if we've got a big leak by our tank levels dropping, but we'll have some incidents where you'll have a small leak somewhere that people may not be able to see to report to you. It can go on sometimes for years,” Brooks said.

A recent audit found the county's distribution system to leak 11.27 percent of all water produced through June of this year. That's roughly 38,000,000 gallons unaccounted for.

Paul Lashbrooke is Superintendent of the county's water district. He says the issues aren't caused by poor workmanship, but rather time and natural occurrences.

“Cold weather, freezing and thawing in the ground. It expands and contracts. And earthquakes because of the New Madrid Fault,” Lashbrooke said.

He also says despite the 11% water loss stat, the county's PVC based system performs relatively well to others in the area.

“PVC pipe is more forgiving. It'll bend a little bit. Cast iron, AC asbestos cement line, which are older materials a lot of places have, particularly cities - we're lucky,” Lashbrooke said.

“We're in a lot better shape than a lot of systems.”

Other water districts in our region fare about the same or even worse.

According to a 2013 Kentucky Public Service Commission audit, Graves County stands at almost 23% water loss. Another ongoing audit at Tennessee Ridge in Stewart County estimates nearly half of all water flowing in the pipes is lost.

The current state maximum is 30%; if a water district oversteps that limit, it risks a state government takeover and potentially higher rates.

Engineer Seth Rye is leading the efficiency effort at Tennessee Ridge. He says the area's pipes are degrading quickly and that these issues aren't exclusive to the area.

“If these leaks were to run all year, you would be looking at about 11.7 million gallons a year. And that sounds like a lot but again, Tennessee Ridge - they're very typical as far as this goes,” Rye said.

“That 11.7 million equates to about $28,000 per year.”

New state regulations have mandated these audits to combat raising line loss rates. Like Tennessee, Kentucky law caps its districts' water loss, but at a stricter 15%.

Andrew Melnykovych is a spokesman for the Kentucky Public Service Commission. He says the PSC's limit is more of a goal rather than grounds for punitive action.

“Our approach is, particularly with some of these small utilities like some of the small water districts, is to get them to fix the problem and to make sure that they have got the resources to address the issue,” Melnykovych said.

“That means setting the appropriate rates and providing them with the financial wherewithal to improve the system so that you don't have a problem.”

While these audits have seen results, some citizens are still concerned. Chris Mitchell is a farmer based in Webster County. He says any water loss is unacceptable, especially during the dry summer season.

“You know, there's the cost associated with it, you're paying it so you don't exactly want to waste it. That's like just - might as well just throw money out," Mitchell said.

These audits in our region show water districts are taking words like Mitchell's to heart. They're not alone, but these fixes won't come cheap; the EPA estimates up to $200 billion dollars will be spent over the next two decades to upgrade the nation's struggling systems.