World Water Loss Day: Tackling Portland’s water loss

Blog Post
Water Bureau employese uses equipment to examine two wet patch of road.
The holiday season is upon us. Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and of course, World Water Loss Day. Although World Water Loss Day isn’t celebrated with delicious food or presents, it is a day that brings people from across the globe together. Water utility managers and workers worldwide recognize Dece

What is water loss?

Water loss is the difference between the total amount of water produced by a utility and the total amount of authorized water used and recorded by a utility. For the Water Bureau, these authorized uses include water used at homes and businesses, fighting fires, running the Benson Bubblers, and many other activities. The bureau tracks all of these uses annually as part of a “water audit”. Any untracked or unauthorized water use is considered water loss. Water loss includes things like leaks on storage tanks, water lost when a pipe breaks, and unpermitted hydrant use.

Water Bureau employee uses equipment to examine a wet patch of road.
Most leaks look like this one: a small, barely noticeable trickle that often cracks the street or sidewalk nearby.

Why is water loss important?

Minimizing water loss is important for all water utilities. Water lost to main breaks or leaks still requires chemicals for treatment and energy to transport. If unchecked, even small leaks can create major headaches for the city. Leaks of any size can lead to potholes and damage other infrastructure like sewer systems and transportation networks. Reducing water loss also makes sense from a conservation and sustainability standpoint. At the Water Bureau, we’re committed to using natural resources wisely. As we reduce our water loss, we reduce the amount of water we draw from our watershed and well field.

What is the Water Bureau doing to reduce water loss?

Reducing water loss is a challenge. In fiscal year 2020–21, the bureau experienced a water loss rate of over 17 percent of water supplied, an increase compared to fiscal year 2019–20. Although this is higher than we would like, it’s similar to peer utilities across the country.

We’ve taken steps since last year to reduce our water loss:

  • Increased the staff performing the leak survey work: In 2020, the bureau doubled the number of staff dedicated to surveying for underground leaks. Bureau staff search for leaks along our infrastructure, paying attention to fire hydrants, water services, and other points along our pipes.
  • Tested a satellite-based leak detection program: In the summer of 2021, the Bureau started a pilot project that uses satellites to detect leaks. This technology can detect underground water leaks by searching for chemical characteristics distinct to treated drinking water. Bureau staff then verify the leaks using acoustic equipment before a repair is made. The goal of this pilot is to find leaks quickly and cost-effectively. We expect this pilot project to be complete by January 2022.
  • Started a hydrant lock program: After an increase in the number of hydrants that were illegally opened and tampered with, the bureau partnered with Portland Fire and Rescue on a pilot to lock high-risk hydrants to prevent water theft.
  • Increased pipe replacement: Replacing aging pipe is essential to reducing our water loss over the long term. In fiscal year 2020–21, the bureau replaced twice as many miles of pipe compared to its historical average and plans on continuing to do so in the future.
Water bureau employee with headphones uses a metal rod on a water meter box to listen for leaks.
Bureau staff use specialized listening devises to hear underground leaks. These acoustic rods allow bureau staff to filter out noise to hear a leaking pipe.

You can help reduce water loss!

Quickly addressing leaks in the city’s water system is essential to reducing water loss. One way you can help is by reporting leaks and other forms of water loss. Sometimes leaks are obvious and look like geysers from the street. But leaks can also be small trickles of water that appear to bubble up or seep from a crack in the road. Water loss can also occur when someone illegally opens a hydrant, or if someone tampers with or damages a hydrant or other infrastructure.

If you see a possible leak or witness someone tampering with Water Bureau property, please call the Water Bureau Emergency Line at 503-823-4874. This line is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The sooner we know about a leak, the quicker we can stop a leak.

Water bureau employee with headphones uses a metal rod on a water meter box to listen for leaks.
The Water Bureau allows customers who have a permit to use fire hydrants in specific circumstances. To use a hydrant, customers must obtain a permit, and, in most cases, a specialized meter as shown in this photo.