Lee’s Summit is blessed with abundant, clean tap water. The next time you enjoy a glass, you might consider that some of the liquid has “spilled” before reaching your house.
Non-revenue water, gallons that never reach customers who can be billed for its use, is a problem for many cities, Lee’s Summit among them.
Over the past five years, according to the utility, Lee’s Summit has experienced an average of 11 percent in non-revenue water. The cost is about $824,000 each year.
National Drinking Water Week, May 7-13, is promoted by the American Water Works Association and its members. Lee’s Summit will be taking part, and for the most part there’s reason to celebrate.
The city consistently provides water that exceeds federal standards for its purity. In recent years, Lee’s Summit has avoided water rationing during droughts due to adding more storage capacity and increasing the amount of water it buys.
According to the American Water Works Association, nationwide the average for non-revenue water is about 20 percent, but it can vary widely because of size and ages of a city’s systems. The more sprawling the city and the older it is, the more leakage is likely.
The water situation in Kansas City impacts Lee’s Summit because it increases that supplier’s overhead for chemicals treating water, etc. without a return. Lee’s Summit buys its water from Kansas City and Independence.
The Kansas City Star reports that Kansas City loses a third of its “ghost water,” while Cincinnati loses about 6.8 billion of the 34 billion gallons it pumps, about a fifth. In arid areas, where water is a premium, the difference is dramatic. The Las Vegas Valley Water System, newer than Kansas City’s, lose only 3.6 billions of the 104 billion gallons it pumps, or about 3 percent.
Still, Mark Schaulfer, director of the Lee’s Summit utility, thinks it plays a minor role in the cost of water to Lee’s Summit customers. Water from Kansas City is delivered in fairly new transmission mains.
Lee’s Summit losses are caused by similar issues to those in Kansas City, but to a lesser degree.
Hydrant testing and flowing, meter inaccuracies, firefighting and water main breaks and leaks are common causes for non-revenue water.
Ordinances forbid the city from providing free water service from government agencies, but there aren’t meters on fire hydrants.
Assistant Fire Chief Jim Eden said the fire department is not billed for water used to fight fires.
He said the amount of water used varies depending on a fire, so it is difficult to determine how much is used by the department in firefighting. Eden said water flow is only metered through certain applications like the Compressed Air Foam System and from the aerial nozzle on the ladder trucks. “Most fires are extinguished with a very small amount of water, usually less than 500 gallons. That includes the initial attack, overhaul, and the flushing of lines,” Eden said.
Lee’s Summit has been talking steps to reduce some non-revenue water losses.
The utility has a replacement program in place that targets the areas that are aging and more vulnerable to main breaks.
In its Neighborhood Water Main Replacement Program, it replaced more than 15 miles of pipe since 2012, doing 3.3 miles in 2016 at a cost of $2.25 million. Another 16 miles of replacement are planned through 2020.
Schaufler said the utility also minimizes lost water by fast response to water line breaks and a program to replace aging meters. Since June of 2013, the utility has replaced 3,168 meters. It also tests 2-inch meters on a schedule in accordance with the American Water Works Association standards.
Response times to a break are typically quick, Schaufler said.
A supervisor is on site within 15 minutes during business hours and within the hour other times. Most breaks are repaired and back in service within five to six hours of the initial call. Customers are out of service an average of less than 1.5 hours, according to the utility’s statistics.
Schaufler said that the department tries to balance the need for replacing infrastructure with setting affordable water rates.
The department in January instituted a 4-percent rate increase. It uses rate studies to make five-year forecasts for required rates, including money for maintenance of its systems, with the rates set annually and approved by the Water Utilities Advisory Board and the Lee’s Summit City Council. The advisory board is made up of large and small consumers and representatives from builders, Schaufler said.
The city’s water and sewer rates are better or competitive with most area communities, he said.
In November 2016, the utility compared 20 area communities (looking at water and sewer bills combined) that showed an $80 monthly average for a combined bill, with Lee’s Summit’s average being $70, ranking it as third most affordable. (The rank may have changed as cities adjust or don’t adjust rates.) Greenwood was at the $80 average, while Blue Springs was at $60. Kansas City’s monthly bills averaged a little over $110.
One advantage in Lee’s is that much of the city’s system is relatively new, having been laid as the city boomed in population in the last couple of decades, he said. The utility targets older lines most likely to fail.
As the system continues to age, the city will be faced with more maintenance issues, but none as daunting as those Kansas City faces.
Lee’s Summit system covers about 65 square miles with 603 miles of mains compared to Kansas City’s 300 square miles and 2,800 miles of pipes.
“Lee’s Summit has a relatively tight system,” said Mark Schaufler, director of the utility. “We’re in the foothills of that large surge of infrastructure.”