When cities and towns deliver water as a utility, they expect to have a certain amount of “missing water,” which refers to the difference between how much water was pumped and how much was billed.
Usually, the difference is about 12 to 13 percent, but in recent months, Columbia City has seen that number nearly double.
“Our unaccounted for water in the last six months has really increased,” said Mike Dear, water department superintendent for Columbia City.
By the end of June, the city has 20 percent of its pumped water unaccounted for, down from 23 percent at the end of March.
For all of 2009, the difference was only 12.5 percent.
Usually, lost water is attributed to fire hydrant usage or leaks.
Sometimes, the loss at fire hydrants is from people who connect illegally to a hydrant, usually to wash down a work site.
Leak inspection is now on the priority list for the city and will probably start with inspection of its lines in the spring, but even leaks likely aren’t responsible for all the city’s losses.
“I don’t believe we’re leaking 7 to 9 million gallons of water,” Dear said.
If the inspection finds no major leaks, the department will try to better track the usage of water for city events and street cleaning.
Faulty water meters could also be a factor, or discrepancies in billing procedures.
Columbia City Mayor Jim Fleck said if it turns out theft is the biggest problem, it needs to be looked at “pretty seriously.”
Columbia City is not alone in its problem of missing water.
Churubusco usually has a 12 percent loss, according to Jeremy Hart, town supervisor.
“Normally, it’s drips or small leaks,” he said.
Fire department usage is not on a meter and most of the losses come from hydrant usage for fires or when town employees flush them annually.
Likewise, South Whitley also has a little constant loss of water.
Town clerk Mitch Winger said the town does not meter its fire hydrant usage, which is where most of the difference occurs.
He said the town usually doesn’t have much theft of water from hydrants, but it can occur, and even small leaks throughout the system can bring large losses.
“It could add up to a substantial water loss,” Winger said.
Hart said when town employees walk from house to house to check meters they also look for wet areas that could be leaks in the water lines.
One option for preventing loss of water to contractors illegally tapping into a hydrant is a building that offers pre-paid water for large quantities.
For Columbia City, 45 million gallons of missing water in 2009 and 40 million gallons already missing this year, the lost revenue adds up quickly.
“All this does is put pressure on us to raise rates and we can’t do that,” Fleck said.