Flint Journal (Michigan)
By Kristin Longley
FLINT — For more than a year, a massive break in a Flint water main leaked millions of gallons of water underground before workers were able to detect the leak and fix it, officials said.
Flint leaders estimate the recently repaired break cost the city more than $800,000 in lost water — not including the cost of repairs.
And lost water from water main breaks is just part of the problem, officials say.
The city estimates that more than 30 percent of the water it buys from Detroit is never billed for by Flint.
Typically, that number should be about 15 percent or less, officials said.
Genesee County, by comparison, estimates that only about 4 percent of the water it buys from Detroit is unmetered water, said Deputy Drain Commissioner John O’Brien.
“If you think about it, if (Flint is) losing 30 percent, each homeowner paying for the water has to pay for that,” he said. “Even at 15 percent, it means you have a significant problem.”
And main breaks aren’t the only water problem the city is dealing with.
With two double-digit water rate increases in the past year and a half, water theft is increasingly becoming an issue in Flint, said Howard Croft, Flint’s development and infrastructure director under emergency manager Michael Brown.
Since he was hired, Croft has been investigating the city’s significant problem with unmetered water. Now that some of the causes have been identified, the city is working on ways to stabilize the water rates, he said.
Croft said there’s no way to quantify how much of the unmetered water is stolen, but said his office has received numerous photos of cut meters as well as and allegations of residents bypassing their water meters or businesses stealing from the hydrants.
City officials list the water losses as one of many contributors to the 25 percent water and sewer rate increase that has angry Flint residents up in arms and staging protests at City Hall.
The rate increase is expected to go into effect next month and follows two double-digit rate hikes in 2011.
Emergency manager Michael Brown and his administrators say steep population loss, rate hikes passed on from Detroit — the city’s water source — as well as the increasing legacy costs of the city’s utility workers are all factors in the increase.
“The age of the infrastructure comes into play here. We’re not unique in this. A lot of water systems are subject to this kind of disaster potential,” said Croft.
The cause of the massive water main break is still being investigated, Croft said.
It could have happened when Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department, which supplies Flint’s water, switched pump stations without notifying the city, said Daugherty Johnson, provisional utilities administrator under Brown. The switch could have caused a sudden burst of pressure that ruptured the aging water main, he said.
Johnson said the break took months to identify and repair because the water found its water into a storm sewer and flowed away from the break. It took two or three tries before workers were able to repair it, he said.
“We’ve taken pictures (of the damage),” Johnson said. “Our next step is calling Detroit’s risk management.”
Rodney Johnson, spokesman for the Detroit water system, said the agency is aware of leaks in Flint and is collecting data from the city for an investigation, but said a cause hasn’t been determined.
“We don’t have any evidence that our Detroit system has caused any leaks in Flint,” he said.
Infrastructure issues aside, the head of the city’s landlord association predicts the city’s water woes will worsen once the rate hike goes into effect.
“They’re going to have to do something. The theft issue is a big one,” said Terry Hanson, executive director of the Genesee Landlord Association. “When you price water out of the means of the people, they’re going to steal it.”
Hanson, a landlord who also lives in Flint, said he has discovered a few cases of tenants stealing water. In one case he reported last year, the city forwarded him the bill for $300.
“I want to see them give the bill to the people who stole the water,” he said, saying landlords would then be more inclined to report theft allegations.
Hanson said the water rate increases could drive more people out of the city. Some residents could lose their homes or get evicted because of unpaid bills or shutoffs, while others will leave to avoid paying the water rates, he said.
“The people should pay their bills,” Hanson said. “The city should also make it affordable.”
The city is preparing for a crackdown on water theft, Croft said. Water that isn’t paid for only increases the burden for people who are paying their bills, he said.
“We are trying to get people to locate this and let us know if they see it,” Croft said of theft. “We want them to know they can be prosecuted.”
Genesee County has strictly enforced its water theft prevention program for about seven years, O’Brien said.
The consequences include court fines and liens on property or equipment, he said.
“The word is out that if we catch you, we take your equipment,” O’Brien said. “We’re very proactive.”
Croft said the city’s legal department is analyzing the possible repercussions for plumbers caught bypassing meters or residents caught stealing.
“That’s water that Detroit knows is coming into Flint but is not monitored coming out,” he said. “We have to raise people’s rates to try to account for that loss.”
Croft said city officials are expected to outline the city’s water issues, including what is factored in the water rate increase and potential options for future water sources, at an as-yet-unscheduled public forum.
Copyright 2012 Flint Journal
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