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Report says utility's water loss tripled

by Byron Tate | February 28, 2021 at 4:30 a.m.
Liberty Utilities, which serves Pine Bluff, is shown in this undated photo.

An annual report that Liberty Utilities files with the state shows that the water company's lost or unaccounted for water more than tripled from 2018 to 2019, giving fuel to the argument that, had the company invested more in the Pine Bluff water system infrastructure, the recent water crisis would not have been so severe.

"If I had a leak that increased by that much, that would tell me that I had a major leak and that I needed to get out there and find it and fix it," Mayor Shirley Washington said. "I don't know what it says to Liberty. But I don't see that they have done anything to fix the problem."

The annual report, filed with the state Public Service Commission because Liberty is a regulated utility, says that in 2018, the company had 276 million gallons of lost or unaccounted for water. A year later, the company had 920 million, an increase of 233%. The report for calendar year 2020 has not been filed yet.

To put that much water into perspective, 920 million gallons would fill the 500-acre Lake Saracen to a depth of more than 5.5 feet. If it was a swimming pool the size of a football field, the depth would be 2,135 feet.

In the weeklong water crisis that started Feb. 18, and that is now being brought under control, the utility started losing pressure in its lines, leading to the infrastructure collapse of bedrock institutions like Jefferson Regional Medical Center, which had to refuse patients, and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which had to put students in hotels.

Not only was there the obvious problem of not having enough water to maintain sanitary conditions, such as being able to flush toilets, but the lack of water streaming into boilers meant that heating systems failed at big operations, such as Saracen Casino Resort, which had to close its doors, costing it millions in lost revenue and Pine Bluff and Jefferson County thousands of dollars in lost tax proceeds.

Liberty has stated that at this time of year, 7 million to 9 million gallons of water is used each day. But in the early days of the crisis, the company said, 15 million gallons were being used, indicating that there were many leaks. One company spokesman called the water system a "bucket full of holes" from all of the breaks and leaks in the lines.

Liberty has maintained that it is being unfairly criticized and that the cause of the water problems was the intense and unrelenting subfreezing weather the area experienced.

"Prolonged extreme weather and bitter cold that impacted utilities and their customers across the Midwest caused numerous pipes to freeze and break," Liberty stated in an email. "This led to increased water production and loss of pressure on Liberty's water distribution system."

But others say Liberty bears some responsibility and point to the lost or unaccounted for gallons from one year to the next as evidence.

Asked to comment on the spike in Liberty's lost or unaccounted for water totals, Washington said the figures substantiate her claim that the utility should have been doing more to take care of its system.

"That attests to the fact that Liberty, which has been here for nine years, has not made the level of investment in the infrastructure they should have in that period of time," she said. "They should be doing something."

Win Trafford, a former City Council member and the director of business affairs for a construction company, was critical of the utility, as well.

"They've known for a long time that here's all their leaks," Trafford said. "But months and months and months go by and they don't do anything about it. These leaks are just adding up now. But they're out there busting their tails right now -- finally."

Trafford also worried that the lost water is causing other damage.

"My concern about it is that with that much water leaking out, what's going to cave in," he said. "That's a lot of water, a lot of water. Where's it going? There has to be some big area somewhere where there's been a bunch of erosion."

Ken Johnson, general manager for Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility, has had his crews out helping Liberty identify and, in some cases, repair waterlines for the past several days. He, too, said Liberty has been slow to fix its lines, thereby making the current crisis that much worse.

"It's quite obvious that there have been concerns for several months and years about the leaks in their system," Johnson said. "Repairing those would have minimized the losses of water and helped us avoid the catastrophic situation we find ourselves in."

Johnson said that if a forced-main sewer line breaks, "we're going to go there at once and repair it as soon as possible."

In response to a question about unaccounted for water, Liberty provided the following statement:

"To address lost and unaccounted for water in our system, we have taken steps such as replacing older meters that mechanically slow down over time with new meters that more accurately record usage, and we hired contractors to assist us with repairing leaks on our system. We will continue our efforts to canvass the community and respond to leaks as they are found."

Johnson, however, said he would like to know what the utility's capital improvement plan is, where the investments in infrastructure have gone and why leaks have been "allowed to go on for so long," adding that he is aware of customer calls about leaks "that had not been taken care of."

As for investing in the Pine Bluff water system, Liberty said it has been doing that.

"We make regular and prudent investments in our infrastructure for safety, water quality, and reliability," the company said in its response. "In fact, we are currently investing in improvements along Main Street in Pine Bluff. This supports the community's Pine Bluff Main Street revitalization project. As we plan investments, we must always consider the impact to customers through possible rate increases."

Street Department Director Rick Rhoden, like Trafford, said he is now wondering if some of the damage to the city streets he is seeing is because of the erosion caused by the almost 1 billion gallons of missing water.

"I've been blaming the problem with potholes on high water," Rhoden said. "But that leaking water could be what is affecting our streets."

Rhoden said that last year, his office nearly tripled the amount of work it had to devote to repairing streets.

"With 920 million gallons going somewhere," he said, "we could have a giant cave-in at any time."

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