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Down the drain: Lost water costs Oak Park $1.2 million

Village seeks causes of unbilled water

July 10th, 2018 3:14 PM

By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Breaks in water lines throughout the village could, in part, be the cause of $1.2 million in unbillable water costs in Oak Park, according to Public Works Director John Wielebnicki.

The Oak Park Board of Trustees discussed the topic at a July 2 board meeting, where it was revealed that in 2017 about 25 percent of the water purchased from the city of Chicago was unpaid for in the village, leaving the municipality to pick up the tab.

The number is a substantial increase from the year before, when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) reported a water loss of about 20 percent in Oak Park. In 2015, there was about 18 percent in unbillable water, according to Wielebnicki.

Oak Park is among other municipalities in the Chicago area with a high percentage of unbillable water. IDNR reports that in 2016, 23 towns in northeastern Illinois had water losses that were 25 percent or more. Maywood reported a water loss of 48.7 percent that year and Berwyn 28.6 percent, according to the most recent data available.

Roughly 10 percent of the water purchased by any municipality is expected to be lost, due to leaks in old water pipes and evaporation, among other causes.

Deputy Village Manager Lisa Shelley told the Oak Park Board of Trustees that a substantial number of water main breaks in 2017 could be the culprit.

"That's a lot of water that's wasted, so that's why we want to look into it," Trustee Jim Taglia said at the board meeting.

Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb noted that it's not just the cost that is cause for concern. "If we're losing $1.2 million just in cost, we have to find a way to figure that out for two reasons: One it's a loss of money, and two it's bad for the environment," he said.

Wielebnicki said in a telephone interview that the village usually pays for a leak detection survey of Oak Park's roughly 100 miles of water lines every couple of years, but the village is considering hiring a contractor to do the study, which costs about $20,000, every year.

He said the last leak detection study was conducted about two years ago.

Wielebnicki noted that Oak Park had twice as many water main breaks in 2017 as it did the previous year, at 24 and 12, respectively. In 2015, there were 15 water main breaks, he said.

The severity of the water main breaks and how long those breaks go undetected can make a big difference in the cost of water to the village, he said.

"The challenge with those is if it's a large water main, they can break and go into a sewer and we don't find out about it until there's a leak detection survey or it starts coming out of the ground," he said.

He said the village also uses metered water that it does not charge for, which he referred to as non-revenue water. This includes water used for street sweeping, flushing and cleaning fire hydrants and watering trees on village property. "There is a certain percentage of water that is expected to be unbilled," he said.

He said replacing old water meters also would help fix the problem of unbilled water. "We've stepped up our meter program to make sure they're recording as accurately as possible," he said. 

Wielebnicki said the village also is considering increasing replacement of old water lines to reduce water loss. The Public Works Department also is considering investing in portable leak-detection devices that can be placed in the system and moved around to better monitor problem areas.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com