Prichard water system loses millions of gallons to leaks, costing $2.7 million a year, ADEM finds

Published: Mar. 8, 2023 at 5:51 PM CST
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PRICHARD, Ala. (WALA) - The water system serving Prichard and Chickasaw wastes more than half of its water some months, at a cost approaching $3 million a year – with potential risks to public health, according to a report by state environmental regulators.

The findings by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s Compliance Assistance Program, add to the growing list of problems facing the Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board, whose customers pay some of the highest bills in the region.

Last month’s report affirms what long has been publicly known in general terms, but it provides a level of detail that has not previously been documented.

It found that the Prichard system has averaged losses that total more than half of the water it buys from the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System. At its highest point, in November, 64 percent of the water the utility bought from MAWSS never made it to homes and businesses.

Some of the water loss is normal, due to such factors as fighting fires and flushing the water lines. Still, even accounting for that, water loss sometimes exceeds 50 percent and averages more than double the 15 percent level recommended by ADEM.

The lost water and other issues are costing ratepayers some $2.7 million a year, according to the report.

“Without interventions to resolve ongoing and increasing water leakage, Prichard’s financial losses will continue to increase in the coming months and years,” the report states. “As such, resolving system water loss is essential for Prichard Water to attain and maintain economic viability.”

Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board Chairman Russell Heidelburg said it is no mystery why the system struggles with leaks.

“We got lines in our system that are 80 years old,” he told reporters recently.

That matches ADEM’s findings, which can all be found in this report.

“The state of disrepair of Prichard’s water lines cannot be overstated,” the report states. “This is particularly true in the Alabama Village area, though there may be other communities within Prichard or Chickasaw that have notable degradation of water service line infrastructure.”

The utility last year unsuccessfully sought $100 million from ADEM to fix leaks. The utility soon will get $1 million form the Mobile County Commission to repair lift stations and $500,000 to fix leaks. But it is a tiny fraction of what the system needs.

Customers express anger

Water customer Gabriel Dortch said he sees the leaks first hand. He pointed to a spot on Max Street where water was covering the pavement on Wednesday.

“It stays wet all the time,” he told FOX10 News. “It never dries.”

A quick drive though Prichard reveals other obvious water leaks coming from underground, some of which are marked by orange-and-white barrels from the utility.

“Water’s coming up through the streets, and it’s just dilapidated,” Dortch said. “But they had years to get this under control.”

John Johnson Jr., a Prichard water board member who has been a vocal critic of Heidelburg, told FOX10 News that the board’s leadership has failed to address long-festering problems.

“No repairs are being made,” he said. “The infrastructure speaks for that.”

The ADEM report estimates water losses by comparing the amount of water the system purchases from MAWSS with the amount of water it sells to customers. For instance, the system bought 123 million gallons in December but sold only 50.4 million gallons. That is a 59 percent loss, or about $180,000 based on the rate of $2.48 per 1,000 gallons it pays MAWSS.

And the water loss has been getting worse over the past three years, according to the report. From November 2019 to March 2021, the system’s total monthly water loss averaged 49 percent – “a strikingly high water loss for a community water system.”

Since March 2021, monthly water losses have averaged 56 percent – with a high of 64 percent in November.

Adjusting for losses due line flushing and firefighting activities, the average loss jumped from 23 percent to 37 percent between those timeframes.

Although MAWWS has not raised its rates since February 2021 and the Prichard system has fewer customers due to long-term population decline, the utility has continued to pay more for water. It shelled out $3.9 million last year, a $300,000 increase over 2021.

2″We believe divergence of water use and population strongly indicates the increase in monthly purchases water volumes over the past three years in the result of increased water losses within Prichard Water’s distribution network,” the report states.

Public health, safety risks

The problems plaguing the water distribution system go beyond financial losses, however. The report warns of that safety of water could be at risk.

“Excessive water loss can adversely affect system pressure, potentially leading to public health concerns that would warrant boil water notices,” the report states.

ADEM recommends drinking water contain at least .2 milligrams per liter of chlorine. The report details several instances over the past several months in which levels have fallen below that threshold, resulting in “inadequate disinfection.”

Flagging water pressure also jeopardizes fire protection, according to the report.

“It is unlikely that suitable fire suppression water can presently be provided in this area of Prichard via these hydrants,” it states. “Furthermore, if anyone opened a hydrant, the likelihood of a notable drop in system water pressure in the vicinity would be significant. Currently, there remains a significant possibility of low system water pressure at any time and location in Alabama Village.”

The report details other deficiencies that are hurting the system’s bottom line. The system seen a steady increase in uncollected bills.

The report noted that Core & Main, a company hired to replace meters, was unable to do so for more than 1,200 residential meters. Some of those meters could not be located, and quite a few “residences” turned out to be vacant lots.

Johnson said only a law enforcement “intervention” can save the system.

“It is incompetence,” he said. “It is theft. It is mismanagement. The mismanagement – this has been going on for years, for decades.”