Only one quarter of the water West Virginia water systems pay to have treated and pumped ever reaches a faucet, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of the most recent annual reports filed by 305 public, community, municipal and private water systems to the state Public Service Commission.

More than 55 percent of water produced and treated by West Virginia water plants disappears underground, through hundreds of leaky, dilapidated systems that have not been properly maintained or upgraded in years, completely unaccounted for.

Another 19 percent of the water pumped in the state is lost but “accounted for,” through things like main breaks and fire department use, meaning systems know where the water goes, but still do not collect revenue for it.

This is all water that systems pay to treat and pump using revenue from customers’ bills. As unaccounted water is lost underground, it takes with it millions of dollars that could be used for much needed system upgrades to provide safer, more reliable drinking water for thousands of West Virginians.

Just 183 of the state’s water systems attributed a dollar amount to their unaccounted water loss on annual reports, totaling more than $23.5 million.

“You’re treating the water, you’re paying for it, and you’re not getting any revenue back,” said Amy Swann, director of the West Virginia arm of the Rural Water Association. “Quite literally, it’s money down the drain.”

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The PSC considers any system with more than 15 percent unaccounted water loss to be non-compliant.

Just 105 of the state’s 305 water systems meet the agency’s standards. Susan Small, director of communications for the PSC, said that while annual reports are mandatory, the issue of unaccounted water loss rarely comes up unless systems file for rate increases, particularly cases that involve a system buying and reselling water from another system.

“The commission doesn’t have the ability to go in to police or double check numbers that are submitted to us,” Small said. “We offer assistance to the utilities in filling out the reports and try to make sure that it’s apples-to-apples, and that the utilities are reporting the same numbers in the same way, but pretty much what we get from the utilities is what we make available on our website.”

Without oversight, it’s possible the numbers submitted on annual reports are understatements or just incorrect. Several systems report identical numbers year to year — a possible but unlikely coincidence — and 30 systems left their unaccounted water loss lines blank on the most recent reports.

Swann, who headed the PSC’s Public Service District division for 25 years before joining RWA in 2013, said that as more regulations are enforced for drinking water through federal legislation like the Safe Drinking Water Act, more attention should be paid to conserving costs when possible — including through unaccounted water loss.

“I think there used to be this thought process at [the PSC] that the cost of production was so low that the economics favored not repairing pipes and just pumping more water, but the cost of production has gone up over the last 20 or 30 years,” Swann said. “The cost of compliance can be significant — especially for these smaller systems. If they can save money by making repairs and producing less because they would lose less water, they should.”

The idea of short-term versus long-term plagues West Virginia’s water infrastructure on several fronts: repairs, maintenance and extensions are extremely costly, so systems often put off working on them to save money to cover debts and emergencies that exist now. The longer this work is put off, though, the more expensive maintenance gets.

The Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a clearinghouse for funding for all water projects across the state, estimates that $17 billion is needed to rehabilitate and connect every structure in the state to centralized water and sewage service. While $23.5 million in unaccounted water loss is a comparatively small amount, any increased revenue can make a difference for small, cash-strapped, community water systems looking to improve service.

Per PSC policies, systems operating with more than 15 percent unaccounted water loss are required to report reasonings for the water loss or efforts that are underway to correct the problem, but few do.

The Town of Pineville water system in Wyoming County, which reported nearly 64 percent unaccounted water loss costing more than $335,000 in 2017, did list a reason for its struggles on its annual report: “Current water lines are old and outdated. Board looking for funding to cover the cost of updating the existing lines. Population in town has decreased over the past 10 years, funding is difficult for small towns to secure.”

These are all problems that contribute to West Virginia’s water infrastructure challenges as a whole: Grant-funding pools for projects to update systems are shrinking, and a dwindling population means dwindling revenue streams, since a majority of water systems have no source of income outside of customers’ bills.

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The biggest challenge for water systems looking to correct unaccounted water loss is a lack of technology. Leak detection software is expensive to buy and install, and isn’t much of a priority for small systems that are busy responding to daily emergencies. “A lot of leaks don’t surface. I know that sounds weird, but they don’t. Many times these small systems, they’re losing all this water and it could be weeks before they figure out where the leak is. A lot of the time they dig — dig until they see water that shouldn’t be there,” Swann said.For small systems like Northfork Municipal Water in McDowell County, which had the highest rate of unaccounted water loss in the state in 2017, with 86 percent gone, the lack of technology means water operators are forced to estimate their losses.

“We don’t really know how much we’ve pumped or how much we’ve lost, it’s sort of a guess based on the information that we do have — how much we’ve sold,” said Carol Sizemore, mayor of Northfork. “We don’t have a master meter and there are some entities — churches, fire stations — that just pay the minimum or aren’t tracked at all [for water usage].”

Northfork, along with neighboring Keystone, is in the process of handing over its water operations to McDowell County PSD, which has made a practice of acquiring small, dilapidated systems as they’ve reached the end of their resources.

The practice isn’t native to McDowell — the Town of Pineville is working to acquire Brenton PSD in Wyoming County as well.

“We’re in bad shape down here, and we know what it is — it’s problems going back to 1981,” said Linda Collins, manager of Brenton PSD. “When [Pineville] comes in, well it’s going to be a few years probably, but they’re going to have to replace and complete everything new. There’s not much working down here.”

Both the PSC and the RWA offer leak detection assistance programs to water systems. Engineers will hook up software that can allow operators to see where leaks are in their systems and address the problems as needed.

Collins said the PSC sent an engineer out to Brenton PSD for the service a few years ago, but it was little help.

“The way our system is set up, the number of problems we had, we couldn’t solve them all. It didn’t work, we’re in too bad of shape,” Collins said.

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Leaks in systems like Northfork and Brenton can mean more than just lost money and water. Open cracks in pipes can let dirt, chemicals and sediment from the ground enter water systems, leading to discolored, dirty water, like

which saw 33 percent of its water unaccounted for in 2017.

The leaks can also mean low pressure for water systems, which in some cases can pose serious danger. Last year, the Whitesville Volunteer Fire Department, in Boone County, filed a complaint to the PSC claiming Boone-Raleigh PSD — which has the fourth highest unaccounted water loss rate in the state, at 69 percent — was failing to provide adequate water pressure and storage levels “placing life and property in grave danger in the event of a fire.”

Companies laid a majority of the water piping in West Virginia — and in the nation — in the early to mid 20th century, most with a lifespan of 75-100 years. In many places that time has expired, and in others the timemark is approaching quicker than it should be due to a lack of maintenance and upkeep over the last 50 years.

This problem has grown worse in just the last five years. In a 2013 Gazette-Mail analysis of annual reports from water companies, just 30 percent of the state’s water was lost — 24 percent unaccounted for and 6 percent accounted for. Today, with 74 percent of the water not making it to customers’ faucets, it’s hard to imagine what could happen in the next five years as fewer and fewer resources seem to be available to solve these problems.

“We’re not alone in what’s happening to us and things are getting worse and worse, especially for the small ones like us. This place, Southern West Virginia, yes, but I think the whole state, we can’t handle it much longer,” Collins said. “We can’t survive like this.”

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.