TAMPA, Fla. — Billions of gallons of treated water are lost every year in Tampa, and it's driving up customers' water bills.
The city is now working to stop those losses, but it may take years to see major improvements.
Tampa's drinking water comes from the Hillsborough River. It is filtered, pumped into reservoirs, treated with chemicals then sent through a network of underground pipes serving 145,000 residential and commercial customers.
But each day, millions of gallons are never measured by water meters or billed to customers, resulting in water loss.
"There is a cost to it, and it's real, and it's in the millions," said Tampa Water Department Director Chuck Weber.
There’s no free water
Weber says most of the losses are the result of leaking pipes.
“There’s no free water. Water isn’t free. It costs money to treat it. So in some way, in some form, ultimately the ratepayers are paying for that water that is lost in the system,” Weber said.
A few water-main breaks make the news, shutting down roads and sometimes even forcing residents to boil water.
But Weber says most leaks are far less dramatic.
There have been more than 2,300 water main breaks in Tampa in the past two years, most of them occurring in Tampa’s older neighborhoods, where some pipes are 100 years old.
Tampa lost 12.8% of its treated water during the 12-month period ending September 30.
Records show that Tampa's water system in the last fiscal year lost more than 2.6 billion gallons of water.
That’s enough water to fill 263,000 average residential swimming pools or almost 50 gallons of lost water per customer per day.
“I had no clue. That’s just crazy. I’ve never heard that before,” said Tampa water customer Marie Dumont.
Dumont lives in the Ridgewood Park neighborhood near the Hillsborough River, where crews are busy replacing old water and sewer lines.
“I didn’t know that was going on. I didn’t know what all this construction was going on in our neighborhood,” Dumont said.
We’ve got over 2,000 miles of pipe
The construction is part of the city’s “PIPES” project, which stands for Progressive Infrastructure Planning to Ensure Sustainability.
The city is spending almost $7 million in Ridgewood Park alone.
“We’ve got a goal of 20 miles a year, and we’ve got over 2,000 miles of pipe. And half of our pipe is pretty old. It’s near the end of life,” said Weber.
In 2019, the Tampa City Council approved the $2.9 billion program, raising water rates for the first time in five years.
Customers’ water and wastewater charges will gradually increase over the next 20 years, with scheduled increases of up to 11% per year.
Dumont says many of her neighbors are elderly and on fixed incomes, which would make it challenging for them to pay significantly higher bills.
The water department is offering assistance to lower-income residents for those who apply and qualify.
New water meters will help detect leaks faster
Weber says all customers will eventually get computerized water meters that should help them detect leaks faster and avoid unwelcome surprises on their bills.
“We can catch leaks a lot earlier. Almost the same day they happen. And if we’re able to do that, we’re going to drastically reduce the amount of water we lose through leaks,” Weber said.
“Oh, I think that’s a great idea,” Dumont said. “Because you have no idea what’s leaking anywhere.”
The city’s water losses are down 2.5% from the last fiscal year when losses averaged around 15%.
Weber says he would like to get that number under 10%.
“We’re not bad, but we’re not great. And definitely not as good as we could be,” Weber said.
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