Officials for the City of Bingen have known for awhile that their water system has been leaking large amounts. But when the city discovered that its pipes had leaked over half of all water that had passed through it in 2010, city officials knew they had to find the leaks, and fast.
"I was outraged at the number," said Mayor Betty Barnes. The number she refers to is the city's original calculation that it lost 53.65 percent of its piped water in 2010, known as distribution system leakage, or DSL. "It is unacceptable."
Thinking that there was a chance the high number could be attributed to meter errors, officials began checking meters throughout the city. In August, Public Works Superintendent David Spratt was checking meters on the property of SDS Lumber Company when he discovered that one meter had something very different about it than other meters he had seen in Bingen. It turned out that the six-inch meter had a multiplier of 1,000 gallons.
In other words, whatever numbers the meter was displaying had to be multiplied by 1,000 in order to get the actual amount of gallons that were being used. For example, if the meter displayed that SDS Lumber had used 1,000 gallons of water during the month, it was really using 1,000,000 gallons of water per month.
City staff immediately began looking through the records to see if the multiplier had been calculated when doing the readings for this SDS tap. They found out that the multiplier had not been used since July 2004. Which meant that for almost seven years, SDS Lumber was actually using 1,000 times more water from this particular tap than the city thought. With meters being read once a month, that means that the meter was misread 84 consecutive times.
According to numbers from a Sept. 1 memorandum sent from City Administrator Jan Brending to Barnes and Bingen City Council members, over the seven years, the difference in water usage between what SDS Lumber was actually using and what was being reported totals 81,292,326 gallons.
The city is not entirely sure how this error happened. The memorandum includes an Aug. 24 photograph of the meter, which shows "X1000" on the dial, seeming to indicate that readings should be multiplied by 1,000, much like the revolutions per minute (RPMs) on a car's tachometer.
Barnes wasn't sure how this was missed, and admitted that multiple people had checked the meter throughout the past seven years, and she was unsure of who made the initial misreading. She explained that someone might have thought that the low number was due to the meter rolling over, or the fact that in summer of 2004, the city was asking both SDS Lumber and Underwood Fruit to conserve water, and that the low numbers were genuinely reduced water usage. Barnes said that Underwood Fruit's billing was never compared to SDS' to see if the business' water usage had dropped as dramatically, because all that might have meant is that Underwood Fruit was not conserving water.
Barnes also said that changes in staff in 2004 could have caused the meter's 1,000 multiplier -- which according to Barnes is the only meter that has one -- to be overlooked. She also explained that SDS may have been drawing water from the river, which would attribute to decreased usage of city water. Barnes is calling the combination of events "the perfect storm."
In order to recoup some of their financial losses from the blunder, the Bingen City Council voted to bill SDS for the difference in usage for the past 1.5 years. In what Barnes called a "fair and equitable" decision, SDS will be billed the full amount of the 1.5 year difference, which amounts to $21,658. The city is not asking SDS Lumber to pay for the other 5.5 years of errors, which would add tens of thousands of dollars to its bill.
The city is unsure of exactly how much money it lost over the years and says that they will not be looking into it now, if ever, since the council vote was to only bill for the 2010-2011 differences. Barnes stated that it would require too much time and resources to find out the exact amount, and that they had bigger problems to worry about, specifically the DSL issue. She did admit, however, that there might be questions raised during an audit of the city's finances, but that she wasn't worried since the city had plenty of supporting documentation to account for the loss of funds.
The silver lining for the city in all of this is that its leakage numbers were previously higher than calculated due to the fact that the non-recorded water that SDS was using was considered leakage. Adjustments to the numbers indicate that the SDS non-recorded water usage accounted for 7.2 percent of leakage in 2010 and 5.4 percent in 2011. However, even when the SDS error is taken out of the equation, Bingen still leaked 46.45 percent of its water in 2010.
Barnes stated that the city wanted to reduce its leakage "as much as we can," but that its desired goal is 15 percent. Anything above 25 percent would be considered unacceptable leakage.
In order to help meet this goal, the city has put out bids to look for an engineering firm, hoping that this company will be able to find and fix the leaks, and put an end to the city of Bingen's massive DSL issues.
Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber Company, did not comment on the story, other than to say that SDS is looking into the matter of the non-recorded water.