Morning Brew: Detroit is leaking

By Guy Gordon - Reporter/Anchor
Headline Goes Here

DETROIT - One of the most stunning statistics quoted in reports of Wednesday's scathing assessment of financial waste in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was the deplorable condition of the city's pipes.

In a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department study cited in a 2009 U.S. Water News report, Detroit and the 126 communities its water system serves, loses an estimated 35 billion gallons a year to leaks. That's 35 billion gallons of clean, drinkable water, re-entering the system and once again going through un-needed reprocessing.  The estimated cost: $23 million annually.

I couldn't wrap my feeble brain around a number that large and the number was presented completely without context. So, while consuming my first gallon of coffee this morning I pondered how to bring some perspective to that number.

Let's imagine if that water was flowing in a river. How long would it be? 35 billion gallons is enough to create a man-made river, 10 feet deep, 100 feet wide, stretching all the way from the foot of Woodward Avenue for 890 miles. That's long enough to flow all the way to ... Dry Gulch U.S.A. in Oklahoma. 

Okies in that parched part of the country would probably appreciate the extra water.

Need more perspective? A 1-million gallon swimming pool would have smaller dimensions (50 ft. wide/10 ft. deep) and would be 267 feet long—or about 4 ½ times the length of an Olympic swimming pool.  To accept ALL the water annually leaking from Detroit's beleaguered system you would need 35,000 of those mega-pools.

At a depth of 10 feet it would make one big pool 470 Million square feet in size … or a giant reflection pool 2 miles wide, stretching from the foot of Woodward to 8 Mile Road. 

But the Water Department is quoted in a 2009 Detroit Free Press article saying the "level of unaccounted-for water is good." 

That is, given the system's age and size, the department "continues to serve patrons just fine.'' 

The American Water Works Association says no system should lose more than 10% of its water through leakage. Detroit, by its own admission, loses 17% of the 100 Million gallons it delivers daily… nearly 70 percent more than the acceptable loss.

But fixing the problem is extraordinarily costly.

Detroit and 46 communities have requested $650 Million for pipe replacement and upgrades … a giant leakage of tax dollars.

Analysts who called for sweeping reforms in how the department is managed think savings from their plan can yield those kinds of savings. While there needs to be a healthy debate over the impact on long-time workers, and independent analysis to confirm their findings, it raises the prospects of a long-term fix. If the stream-lined, more efficient plan is adopted and delivers the promised savings, it could generate $900 Million dollars in savings over 10 years.

That's more than enough to patch the leaks, save wasted water, and maybe, just maybe, give a rate break to over-taxed residents who are trying to tread water is a lackluster economy.

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