ANDOVER – In 2014, Andover ranked 239th out of 280 Massachusetts towns reporting unaccounted for town water, the difference between water that enters the treatment system and that which is metered out to water users.
Twenty-five percent of its water — 562 million gallons annually — is unaccounted for. The town’s water consultant recommends that it continue to shore up leaks, improve its infrastructure and make a host of other changes to reverse the lost flood of water, according to a recently released water report .
The lost water is a mystery with clues and implications for water rates and has the attention of Chris Cronin, the town’s head of municipal services since 2014.
“I take it very seriously,” Cronin said, overlooking the town’s water supply, Haggetts Pond, last week.
The 220-acre pond, supplemented by water pumped from the Merrimack River, flows through an intake pipe to the town water treatment plant, at the pond’s edge, then into the town’s distribution system.
All but about 30 residences in Andover have town water.
And Andover also pumps up to 1.5 million gallons a day to North Reading, selling the water to its neighbor.
Impact on water rates
Cronin says Andover’s water rates are low, among the lowest in the Valley and among peer municipalities — coming to about 0.4 cents per gallon
The current water rate is a flat charge of $3.10 for 748 gallons – 100 cubic feet. Upcoming tier rates, going into effect in July, will minimally impact typical water users.
Still, the water could be even less expensive, or the town could generate greater revenue for infrastructure improvements, were the town not spending an estimated $230,000 to produce water that was unaccounted for in 2014.
It’s estimated that the town spends about $415 to produce 1 million gallons of water.
“It is a resource we are using, we are spending money to treat water and put it into a distribution system,” said Cronin. “We don’t want to waste ratepayers money – we want to keep the rates as low as possible.”
A good portion of the unaccounted-for water is a result of old pipes leaking and breaking — with water lost, Cronin said. Slow leaks percolate into the ground. Breaks, which are more catastrophic, bring water to the surface and it then flows into the town drainage system leading to ponds and rivers.
Cronin said some people are concerned about unaccounted-for water because it is treated with chlorine.
That is true, but the treatment is to only the state required level, the main disinfectant Andover uses is ozone. Ozonation pumps colorless oxygen atoms into water. The ozone quickly degrades but not before attacking any bacteria, viruses, iron, manganese and other substances, and eliminating taste and odor problems.
Water flows from the intake pipe to the ozone building where it is disinfected and sent through filter beds and into the clear well before being pumped into distribution centers.
The water is generally received as good tasting and the water department was recognized in 2015 by the state DEP’s drinking water program for outstanding community service, receiving one of the top scores in the state for providing safe and fit water to its customers.
Missing since 2011
Still, the unaccounted for water is a nagging problem that surfaced on Cronin’s radar screen in 2011, when he became acting director of Andover DPW.
The town has been in the mid-20s, in percentage of unaccounted for water since 2011.
Finding the sources of its lost water and stemming those losses are top priorities in the town, say everyone from its head of municipal services to its town manager to the chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
At Town Meeting, two residents, one of whom was Heather Lauten, worried about the inefficiencies, any environmental implications and the costs of the lost water.
Lauten wanted to know the plan for figuring out where that water is going as opposed to increasing water and sewer.
“Let’s find out where our water is going,” she said in an interview.
A study the town commissioned last year was released by CDM Smith in March, and points to no single likely cause for the unaccounted for water; and no single likely remedy, either.
“Although there are some metering issues to be corrected and improved bookkeeping practices that may lower unaccounted for water, the town should primarily focus on reducing sources of non-revenue water (i.e., unmetered water, water main breaks and breaks) as they are likely the biggest cause of the town’s unaccounted-for water,” the report states.
Unmetered water refers to fire suppression, flushing valves and pipes.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s standard for unaccounted for water is 10 percent. To maintain permitting a town must at least show progress towards that percentage.
Andover’s next renewal of its water withdrawal permit comes due in November 2018.
Failure to show progress toward the state’s 10 percent baseline of unaccounted for water will require it to administer and follow compliance plans.
“The goal is to get to 10 percent,” Cronin said.
The town, going back to 2001, undertook a regular calibration of its meters to make sure they are accurately measuring water. They will continue with the calibrations.
From 2012 they have installed a leak prevention program completed at night by a private contractor and also by DPW crews.
Leak detection company crews rely on sensitive listening devices to isolate leaks. The service costs about $15,000 annually.
The town is doubling its annual budget of $1 million to $1.5 million for water main replacements. The town has about 22 miles of unlined cast iron water pipes, the vessels most susceptible to breaks.
Under the new rate system, the town should be able to double its water main infrastructure improvement rate, knocking the overall schedule back to 30 years, and replacing all its unlined cast iron pipes, the most susceptible to breaking, long before the 30 years are up, Cronin said.
Another change likely to produce dividends is measuring the effectiveness of meters that commercial/industrial large users use to measure water use, and switching undersized or otherwise ineffective meters for more accurate large meters that can be read remotely.
“I am certain this is going to account for some of the unaccounted for water,” Cronin said.
This is a recommendation put forth by Woodard and Curran consultants, which is carrying out a peer review of CDM Smith’s water consumption, production and accounting report.
In addition, the town is reorganizing its water reading and billing sections.
“We expect all of these corrections to pay dividends,” Cronin said. “They are all small, they are all incremental but a percent here and there adds up.”