It’s been four years since Duncannon noticed it was losing water from its system at above-average rates, but despite all efforts, the losses are higher than they were – even after several repair projects.
According to officials at the February 16 council meeting, the district appears further from solving its water loss mystery and facing increasing pressure from regulators. This also puts a strain on some relationships related to the problem.
“Why aren’t the numbers closer together than spreading apart?” Council Chairman Jeff Kirkhoff said.
The district had a 52% water loss the previous month, or tens of thousands of gallons, said Kevin Hoch of PA Environmental Solutions Inc. (PESI), the district’s water and wastewater operator. This equates to a 45% loss in 2018 and 20% over normal operation in an aging system like Duncannon’s.
Water losses are calculated by subtracting the water sold from the water from city wells. There is also some play in the numbers because of older counters that can be inaccurate or other problems. However, everyone seems to agree that the losses are too big to be just old meters. The community is working to get grants that would replace a large number of the older meters in the city.
This is not the first time the losses have been this high. Before the system repair, water loss peaks in the range of 50% and 60% were recorded in the municipality. But these were emergencies that have subsided with leak repairs, replacing old nets and valves that weren’t working properly.
Over the years this work has cost millions of dollars, and the community claims the system is much better off overall for the future. Previous infrastructure reviews have shown the district has more than ten million dollars in upgrades to its various services.
Over the past year, the district has identified and fixed several large leaks that it believed were significant contributors to overall monthly losses. The losses decreased somewhat, but not enough. This means closer scrutiny by regulators like the State Department of the Environment (DEP) and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), who review and approve the water resources in the area.
“All parties involved must satisfy DEP and SRBC,” said Hoch about the situation.
But there has been some friction between the district and PESI. Its president, Todd Mace, sent a letter to regulators and the district alleging the district was not following company advice, such as involving experts in leak detection.
“I wasn’t happy because it wasn’t true. We don’t ignore anything PESI said, ”said Kirkhoff at the meeting.
The district has followed the advice of its operators, brought in experts, hired its own staff to find leaks, and then fixed them as soon as possible, he said. However, Kirkhoff noted that water leak detection services can be expensive, and the district has been involved in several infrastructure projects.
Regulators said they are continuing to work with Duncannon on the water leaks, but the actions taken so far have not stopped the leaks.
The SRBC said in an email that according to a 2019 agreement, Duncannon must bring its water losses below 20% by 2024. If the cause of these leaks cannot be found, the Commission would reassess the situation.
“While the Commission can and does use enforcement powers to ensure compliance with its rules, staff strive to work cooperatively with systems when systems fail,” said Gene Veno, SRBC director of government affairs and public advocacy.
For example, a recent line break caused Duncannon to exceed the allowable water pumped from its wells, Veno said. SRBC issued a notice of violations but ruled the district would not be penalized.
“The Commission would very much prefer Duncannon to allocate resources to repair and maintain the infrastructure,” said Veno.
The DEP state is on the same wavelength.
“Duncannon continued to experience excessive water loss and had problems locating leaks. They fixed some leaks that bring them out of regular emergency situations, but so far they haven’t been able to find anything big, “said John Repetz, a spokesman for DEP.
The department offered leak detection assistance to the community through its Professional Engineering Services program, he said. It was just waiting for the district’s response last week. The program would help the community identify problems at no cost. It would then have to pay for its repairs.
DEP said systems are not required to perform work found by the program, but Duncannon will likely need to make corrections. It operates its own water system and the losses are costly. For every 100 gallons pumped, 52 goes nowhere and isn’t paid for.
“This is water that doesn’t have to be lifted out of the ground with electric pumps, treated in the sewage treatment plant and then pumped through the kilometers of distribution pipes. All of these are costly activities that are paid for directly by customers, which could be reduced, “said Veno.
Jim T. Ryan can be reached via email at