This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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As persistent drought conditions have threatened the water supply in Utah, Park City residents met the call to conserve by cutting water use by 50% since 2000. The city’s tiered water pricing, notices to residents of potential water overuse and savings comparisons with similar water users encouraged the residents to cut back.
But huge amounts of water were still being wasted.
Park City Public Utilities was losing about one third of its water before it was even getting to customers in 2018, water resource manager Jason Christensen said. Some of that was from routine maintenance like water flushing to remove debris from pipes and some could be from faulty meters that didn’t record all the water a home used, but it looked like a much simpler problem.
Park City was dealing with leaky pipes. In a home, that may mean enough water to fill up a bucket every day or so, but in Park City, that was enough to fill Olympic-size swimming pools.
In Utah’s arid conditions, Park City Public Utilities decided that water is too precious to just let go.
“We needed to take a hard look at and see how we could improve and reduce our water loss in the system,” Christensen said.
Park City contracted Xylem, a New York-based water technology company, to identify problem areas in the utility’s infrastructure.
One way Xylem is able to help Park City identify leaks underground is with machinery that listens to the pipes. When pipes are leaking or have pressure problems, there is a sound that these machines and crews can detect, Christensen said.
When a crew isn’t able to determine where a leak is, sensors can also be placed to continuously monitor the area. Using that data, Xylem can notify Park City about locations of leaks.
A $70,000 investment in that sensing technology identified several leaks in the Upper Deer Valley that were spilling about 400 gallons a minute of water. One hour of water lost from those leaks could supply about 100 homes for a day. Fixing those leaks saved about $200,000 a year, Christensen said.
“It helps us save money, which we’re able to pass on to all the residents from Park City,” Christensen said. “It also helps us save water, which is especially critical in an exceptional drought like this year.”
Billions of gallons of water lost
Park City’s water problems weren’t unusual, either. It is one of thousands of water utilities around the country working to close up leaks before they lose significant amounts of water.
Every day, about 6 billion gallons of drinking water leaks from utilities across the country, according to the most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That’s enough water for 9,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Aging infrastructure is a “fundamental piece” of why utilities are losing water through leaks, Xylem vice president of business incubation Christine Boyle said. Without an influx of cash to do repairs all across the water lines, utilities need to find ways to prioritize where they make repairs or replace pipes.
“The financial reality of how these utilities operate is that things at some point break faster than the utility is able to keep up with maintenance,” said Boyle, who has a PhD in water economics.
Using data to conserve water
Park City is also working with Xylem to use its Hidden Revenue Locator program, which was based on technology developed by Boyle. Boyle joined Xylem when the company bought her startup and technology Valor Water Analytics.
Using software developed in part by Boyle, Park City will be able to determine whether the water meters on certain homes are inaccurate.
When customers’ meters undercount the amount of water used, utilities lose out on revenue. Inaccurate meters also make it more difficult for users and the utilities to identify whether conservation goals are being met.
There’s also an equity component to making sure meters are accurate, Christensen said.
“One of our goals is to make sure that the system is treating everyone fairly,” Christensen said. “If your neighbor is using more water to irrigate his lawn, he’s paying the price of that additional water.”
Getting started on infrastructure
Stopping leaks can better maintain water supplies amid droughts, which are more likely to persist with the effects of climate change on Utah.
“I do think it’s something we all should take a look at as we plan for the future,” Christensen said of utilities.
Contracting with companies to identify leaks has saved the utility money in the long run. Companies use the same technology for each utility they work with, which lessens the burden of research and development costs that any one utility would have spent for that technology.
But that doesn’t mean dealing with leaks is cheap, Christensen said. It was just a worthwhile investment.
“Any time you look at real water losses, there’s going to be a [large] price tag,” Christensen said. “Thankfully, our city council and community were willing to invest.”