Where is the water?

For the last five years, since 2011, 25 percent of the town’s water supply has gone missing.

That’s 562 million gallons of water every year that is unaccounted for.

That is one, big leak.

Or maybe a million small ones.

Or maybe lots of big water breaks.

Or may something to do with commercial water users.

Or ... or ... or .... !

Frustrated yet? As a taxpayer — and municipal water buyer — you should be.

This has been going on since 2011 and nobody said or did anything about it until last year, when a consultant was hired to conduct an “unaccounted for water study.” Ya think?

The results came out in March. Their answer? They don’t really know. Their solution? “Reduce the amount of non-revenue water, such as unmetered water, water main breaks and breaks as they are likely the biggest cause of the town’s unaccounted for water.” Unmetered water refers to fire suppression, flushing valves and pipes, according to reporter Terry Date’s story in last week’s Andover Townsman.

So water pipe breaks and flushing of pipes are “likely’”the biggest cause of lost water.

Gee, we hope the town didn’t pay too much for that study.

But at least it’s a start.

Not to be too cynical here, but does this mean the Fire Department should not use too much water to put out a fire? Of course not. So why even mention it?

Water main breaks. Seems like they happen all the time all over town. Why is that? Why does a town like Andover, one of the wealthiest in the state, if not the nation, have one of the lowest water rates in the area? One can only guess at the answers.

But one should consider the vast amounts of water that is used by the industrial companies out on the I-93 corridor, not to mention hotels and motels, hospitals, golf clubs and the like. So there is a built-in lobby in town to keep rates low. Homeowners, already slammed with sky-high property taxes, certainly don’t want their rates going up, either. But they don’t want brown water and chronic water main breaks, either. 

What this boils down to (no pun intended), really, is that with low water rates comes low water system maintenance. This town didn’t even have a water main flushing program until a year or two ago. And as soon as it starts, along comes a consultant (see above) recommending less water flushing because it is “non-revenue” water.

While the Board of Selectmen, which is also the town’s Water and Sewer Commission, have concerned themselves with the rising obligation of retiree health insurance and pensions, it has forgone its responsibility as water and sewer commission. The board, going back at least to 2011, should have been pushing for answers from the town staff about where the water is going and why. Ultimately, wasted water just costs taxpayers and makes running the system even more expensive than it has to be.

The selectmen are convening a town facilities committee. Maybe they need to convene a town water system committee. There have been nothing but problems in that department for years, going back to a staffer who was prosecuted for running a private water-testing firm out of the water treatment plant. And then there was the whole Berberian sludge dumping, which was a long, drawn-out affair that ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Even one of the people who was terminated from the water department after the Berberian incident was reinstated. Nobody has ever adequately explained to the public what happened there.

For some reason, when it comes to water, Andover can’t quite get it right. An agreement to sell water to North Reading will expire some time in the next 5-10 years, leaving the town’s ratepayers to pick up the slack. Homeowners — and businesses — can expect a hefty hike in water fees when that happens.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea to boost water rates now in order to get to the bottom of this mystery of the missing water.

As J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, said in the movie “Chinatown”: “Gonna be a lot of irate citizens when they find out that they’re paying for water that they’re not gonna get.”

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