A water line break in the Boardmanville neighborhood

Olean Times Herald file photo

A water line break in the Boardmanville neighborhood on May 10 is just one of the many ways the city cannot account for more than 40 percent of treated water, officials said. The Office of the State Comptroller issued a report in October stating that municipalities statewide could save millions by reducing the amount of water lost to leaks and unmetered uses.

OLEAN — With more than two of every five gallons of city water unaccounted for, city officials said they are making strides to lower that amount.

The Office of the State Comptroller issued a report in October indicating that many municipalities have issues with water being unaccounted for, and by dropping the unaccounted water would drastically lower costs.

"Water leaks, broken pipes and aging infrastructure are costing local governments millions of dollars annually," said DiNapoli. "Across New York, my audits have revealed infrastructure problems, poor budget practices and a lack of long-term planning are straining municipal finances and increasing costs for taxpayers. If these problems aren't addressed, the issues plaguing water systems will only get worse."

A review of 161 audits of local governments on water systems showed that 22 specifically cited water loss as an issue. The review estimated that fixes could yield as much as $2.2 million in savings.

The review noted that more often than not, water loss is caused by leaks from broken or aging underground pipes.

The report did not include a review of Olean, but local officials said that the water leak issue is one that affects the city.

“It’s always on our mind to be replacing old infrastructure,” said Bob Ring, director of the city Department of Public Works.

According to the city’s water report for 2016, total water production was 925.27 million gallons, with 530.18 million being metered and delivered. Around 395 million gallons were unmetered, or 42.7 percent.

“To get that below 30 percent would be realistic,” Mayor Bill Aiello said. “In a perfect society, we’d have nothing, but that’s not realistic.”

Where exactly all that goes can be difficult to track, Aiello and Ring said.

For years, the use of water by the city itself has not been tracked.

“Over the last year, they’ve begun metering the buildings,” Aiello said, adding the 2017 report will include that usage.

Other unmetered water is used to fight fires, as well as when hydrants are flushed periodically, Ring said, including in communities connected to the Olean water system through neighboring water districts.

But leaks are still common.

The leaks, Ring said, usually come from old iron pipes — damaged by natural freeze-thaw cycles — and from aging water valves.

“Our water infrastructure is as old as our sewer infrastructure,” Ring said, adding the city’s $23.5 million wastewater treatment plant project has drawn attention to infrastructure needs.

And finding them can be hard, especially for slow leaks.

“If it’s not coming up to the surface, we don’t know about it. Sometimes we can hear it by putting a machine on a valve and listening,” he said, adding that unless a line has a major break, it is difficult to find and repair without tearing up an entire line in the replacement process.

The city’s budget for transmission and distribution costs in the 2016-17 budget was set at just shy of $500,000, with $75,000 appropriated for water mains and hydrants.

“I wouldn’t exactly say it’s cheap” to replace a water line, Ring said, adding the cost runs from $25 to $100 a foot depending on the size of the line and if the DPW or a contractor is doing the work.

With service to 15,000 people on more than 6,000 parcels, there’s a lot of line out there.

“I’d say there’s close to 400,000, 500,000 feet of water lines,” he said. While some water lines have been replaced recently — most notably those along East State and North Union streets following street overhauls in the last five years — the cost of replacing the old lines in the city would likely run in the tens of millions of dollars.

With the high cost and limited ability of the city, outside sources may be needed.

“We’re pursuing grants for our infrastructure underground,” Ring said.

In the 2017-18 state budget, more than $1.5 billion was set aside in the Clean Water Infrastructure Act to boost municipal water infrastructure.

City officials are preparing a longer-term plan, he said, with one large project on the horizon.

“With budget considerations, we can do one or two water lines a year.” Ring said. “We have a plan being put together to replace the Washington Street water line.”

Washington Street, which runs 16 blocks, runs through heavily-populated neighborhoods and supplies several schools.

In addition, the city has been replacing water valves throughout the city, at a cost between $800 to $2,500, depending on the size and who is doing the work. It also costs about $2,000 to replace fire hydrants that develop leaks or are damaged.

A subset of valves that could leak are the shut off valve at each service line which used to be used by the city when water bills went unpaid.

“We don’t do shut-offs at the service valve anymore,” Ring said, adding that slow leaks there could be a cause of water loss with little chance of detection. The responsibility for those valves, he said, generally rests on the property owner, but the owner isn’t responsible for the water usage as it occurs before reaching the meter.

(Contact reporter-editor Bob Clark at bclark@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)