Dayton loses billions of gallons of water every year. What is it doing to stop the costly leaks?

Aging infrastructure nationwide, including in the city of Dayton, causes 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water that cities spend millions on each year to spill through leaky pipes and water main breaks.

The problem will continue to hit taxpayers and customers in the pocketbook through rate increases and other areas if it’s not addressed, local and national experts say.

The city of Dayton pumps about 23 billion gallons of water a year. It loses between 16% and 30% of its treated drinking water — between 3.68 billion and 6.9 billion gallons a year, according to what the city described as a very rough estimate.

The city of Dayton several years ago began an “aggressive” approach to address the problem by agreeing to make repairs on 1% of its water pipes annually. In all, the city has spent $15 million per year repairing or replacing its water infrastructure. The majority of that money has gone toward the city’s more than 800 miles of water pipes, some of which have been in place since the 1800s, officials said.

ExploreWhat Dayton learned after the unprecedented water outage 1 year ago

Dayton recently raised water rates to pay for the capital improvement project. The city’s water is distributed to some 400,000 people, including about 250,000 people in Montgomery County.

“These costs don’t go away,” said Aaron Zonin, Dayton’s deputy water director. “If we’re not aggressive in replacing the (water lines) and making those hard decisions now, it will cost 10 times more in the long run to replace this stuff.”

A city of Dayton crew replacing a water main pipe under the Great Miami River at the southern section of the city Thursday afternoon./ CONTRIBUTED
A city of Dayton crew replacing a water main pipe under the Great Miami River at the southern section of the city Thursday afternoon./ CONTRIBUTED

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions to the biggest issues facing our community, including the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. In this story, we examine how the aging infrastructure causes water loss and what steps Ohio and Dayton are taking to mitigate it.

Leaky pipes and other problems with infrastructure always will exist and cause water to seep out. The key is to minimize it as much as possible, experts said.

New Ohio EPA requirement

Historically Dayton did not track water loss caused by leaks in the infrastructure or at customers’ homes and businesses, Water Director Mike Powell said. Instead, it focused on making sure that the water was properly treated and customers’ meters functioned , Powell said.

Dayton Water Director Michael Powell. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF
Dayton Water Director Michael Powell. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

However, city officials said they have made some efforts to mitigate the losses in recent years because they spend nearly half of the water budget on treatment. So they put in place measures such as response times to repair water main breaks and better meters, he said.

“(Water loss) may not have been on the minds of many individuals over that point in time,” Powell said. “But as time goes on, efficiencies improve, you continue to look for ways to improve.”

ExploreDayton Drinking Water Safety: How healthy is the local aquifer

Given the aging infrastructure, water loss has been a significant factor affecting the delivery of safe drinking water to residents, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Spokeswoman Dina Pierce said. So the state two years ago began requiring public water systems to have an asset management plan. As part of that plan, municipalities must track water loss and submit annual reports to the agency.

“A well-run drinking water system will have minimal water loss, and therefore can be a measure of how well the system is operating,” Pierce said. “The reason the state is having systems track and submit annual water loss is to help assess the effectiveness of each system’s asset management program.”

The first water loss report for 2019 is due by Nov. 15. Municipalities that do not comply with sending the data to the Ohio EPA will be issued a notice of violation letter, Pierce said.

Minimizing water loss can reduce demand on the system, extending the life of a water system’s assets, and cutting back on the need for large capital expenditures, Pierce said. Upgrading water treatment plants is expensive and can lead to rate increases for customers. So tracking water loss should allow systems to evaluate the waste over time and see a downward trend, Pierce explained.

Six billion gallons per day

The Buried Valley Aquifer, which provides drinking water for the majority of Southwest Ohio, has about 1.5 trillion gallons of water. In comparison, the nation wastes more than 2 trillion gallons of treated water each year because of leaky pipes and water main breaks, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That equates to an estimated 6 billion gallons that’s lost nearly each day in the U.S. because of faulty pipes in the infrastructure, the ASCE said. That total includes about 240,000 water main breaks annually.

ExploreCOVID-19: Safe water systems crucial during outbreak

In all, leaky, aging pipes cause up 18% of the country’s treated drinking water to be wasted each day. That amount could support 15 million households nationwide, the ASCE said. Typically, a well-functioning water utility should average below 10% of water loss, said Greg DiLoreto, a water executive who retired after 30 years and a past ASCE president.

Dayton sells drinking water to Montgomery County. In its latest agreement, signed in 2018, the city estimated it will experience about 25% water loss, but would work to reduce it. Those are loose estimates, Zonin said, and the city included it to quantify the problem as both parties work to reduce water loss.

The city is in the process of preparing its water loss report for the Ohio EPA, and those are also going to be a “very, very rough estimate,” he said. Zonin estimates that the city’s current water loss rate could be between 16%-30%.

“We’ll have a better idea later on in the fall, and that’s going to be the basis for where we begin (to collect better water loss data), Zonin said. “What we can do then is really develop the plan and concentrate on those areas. It’ll take a while; the system’s so large that you really got to take chunks at a time and break it down.”

ExploreMontgomery County saw record water main breaks. How it will fix its aging systems

Water loss is important to measure for any utility, because it directly impacts costs and overhead for operations, Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert said in a statement. While the 25% water loss rate is included in the contract with the city, “Montgomery County would like to see water loss reduced to a level more consistent with best practices and industry standards for our combined system,” he said.

The cost of having clean drinking water

The nation’s water infrastructure ― not water quality ― is in such bad shape that the ASCE gave it a D on its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. An estimated $1 trillion is needed to maintain and expand services to meet demand in the next 25 years, the association said.

Most water pipes across the country have an average life span of 75-100 years, but they’ve exceeded that, said DiLoreto, who worked on the ASCE’s report that’s released every four years. Some of Dayton’s pipes are about 150 years old, Powell said.

Water infrastructure nationwide hasn’t been well maintained, even though water consumption has declined in the country by 5% in the past decade because of increased efficiencies and reduction in withdrawals for retired coal‐fired power plants, according to the ASCE.

“Utility executives will tell you that the first dollar of revenue that everyone gets goes for water quality and treatment plants,” said DiLoreto, who was chief executive of a Portland water district for 14 years. “If they have any money left over, they’ll spend it on pipeline replacements.”

The city of Dayton’s overall water operating budget is about $52 million per year, 47% of which goes toward water supply and treatment, Zonin said. In comparison, the city spends $37 million and $20 million on its wastewater and storm water systems, respectively.

In 2019, the city of Dayton experienced 124 water main breaks, which amounted to an average of 23,871 gallons of lost water, Powell said. That total does not include the “unprecedented” Feb. 13, 2019, water main break that spilled 150 million gallons into the Great Miami River and left more than 400,000 people without drinking water for nearly two days.

Explore‘Nearly catastrophic’ break a glimpse of vulnerabilities to area’s water

The number of water main breaks in the city the past five years have been pretty consistent because of the work it’s done on the pipes, Zonin said. So he expects it to be similar by the end of this year and perhaps start to decline in the near future.

Capital improvements

Dayton recently launched a capital improvement project program and plans to spend $15 million annually to upgrade its aging water system in hopes of cutting back on leaks. In addition, it has kicked off a series of initiatives to better track water loss and meet the Ohio EPA’s guidelines.

“We need to make sure we quantify what’s coming out of the (water treatment) plants, we need to make sure we quantify what we’re actually billing customers, and then we’ve got to quantify what’s in the middle,” Powell said. “Anything that’s coming out of the plant that’s not getting billed to customers, where is it being lost, and what can we do about it?”

As part of its effort to reduce water loss, the city of Dayton is renovating its reservoirs./CONTRIBUTED
As part of its effort to reduce water loss, the city of Dayton is renovating its reservoirs./CONTRIBUTED

At the beginning of the year, the city started calibrating water meters, which will help determine the amount of water going in and out of the system. The city has also started rehabilitating four underground reservoirs, which tend to have leaks that go unnoticed, Powell said. In addition, crews are adding special controls to the elevated water storage tanks to prevent them from overfilling the reservoirs.

Crews are also working to repair leaks in water storage tanks, Powell said.

Automated Meter Reading device

Ten years ago the city replaced all of its manual meters with automated meter reading devices. Prior to installing the automated devices, the city had manual meters that required employees to go into customers’ homes and businesses. That was not always practical, Powell said.

“I had one of (the manual meters) at one point in time, and it was a pain trying to coordinate getting my meter read with my work schedule,” he said. “They would only do that so many times before they would send me a notice saying, ‘Hey, we haven’t read your meter in X number of visits, so we’re going to turn your water off unless you let us in.‘”

ExploreOhio EPA resumes tests for so-called 'forever chemicals'

The automated device allows the city’s meter readers to drive down the street, and a computer in the car automatically reads the meters as they pass a home. It records water usage and bills customers more accurately. The meter also collects and stores data that the city can access if necessary to address problems. For instance, if there’s a surge in water usage, possibly because of a leak, the devices detect it.

The automated devices have a lifespan of 15-20 years, but their batteries are starting to die after a decade, Powell said. So city water officials have started researching possible replacements that are more technologically advanced. Several meter manufacturers have done presentations to city officials in the past year, and the Advanced Metering Infrastructure ― AMI ― seems to be the most logical choice, he said.

The city’s still researching the various possibilities, Powell said, and hopes to decide within the next five years.

A technologically advanced meter reader

The AMI is capable of two-way communication between the water treatment plant and the customer’s location. It constantly monitors the water system and collects data about usage and sends an alert if there’s a leak, including the location. It’s also capable of predicting where leaks or water main breaks may occur, and crews can address it in advance.

AMI also allows the utility company to turn a customer’s water on and off remotely. For instance, if a customer’s water were to get shut off, they can make a payment over the phone and the water would be turned back on immediately, Powell said. Currently, customers have to wait hours, or perhaps days to have their water turned back on because someone has to go to them to turn it back on.

In addition, AMI communicates directly with the customers. It allows customers to track their water usage and other data via text and email alerts. Customers are alerted if they exceed their average water use.

“The technology has grown so fast,” Powell said.

ExploreCleaning up ‘forever’ chemicals in drinking water not easy task

AMI is considered to be the gold standard in modern networks among utilities of all kinds, according to Water Finance & Management, a trade publication for water and wastewater professionals.

The cost of the AMI device depends on the manufacturer and number of features and upgrades a municipality wants, Powell said. A basic model costs about $14 million for a citywide system, according to the 2018 article “AMI Water Meters Allow Utilities to Provide Higher Level of Service.” Payback for installation for about 64,000 meter systems is predicted to be about six years, the article said.

If the city chooses the AMI or another device in about five years or so, customers’ rates are not expected to increase, Powell said. Meters are supposed to be replaced every 10-20 years, so replacements are built into operating costs, he said.

How can consumers reduce water loss?

The city’s doing all it can to decrease water loss, but residents can assist them as well, Powell said. Whenever they notice water main breaks, water spilling from fire hydrants and the like, they should immediately report it to the city at 937-333-4905, he said, noting that line is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“(Phone tips) are where we get the best data from,” Powell said. “The supervisors that are on call during the day or on call in the evenings and at nights, the majority of the time, that’s where those responses come from, from our citizens, their eyes and ears.”

By the numbers

$1 Trillion: Investment needed to maintain and expand water service to meet demands over the next 25 years.

2.000 miles: Amount of water, sewer and storm water pipes in the city of Dayton

$15 million: Amount the city plans to spend annually to upgrade its aging water system.

124: Total number of water main breaks in the city in 2019 that led to an estimated 23,871 gallons of wasted water (not including the unprecedented major break in the Great Miami River in February 2019)

6 billion: Amount of clean drinking water the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is lost across the country each day because of leaky pipes and water main breaks.

About the Path Forward

Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by investigating the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. Follow our work at