Additional Federal Aid for Urban Water Distribution Systems Should Wait Until Needs Are Clearly Established

CED-81-17: Published: Nov 24, 1980. Publicly Released: Nov 24, 1980.

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Many Federal, State, and local officials are proposing to modify Federal policy to provide more Federal aid to help large cities rehabilitate and improve their water supply and distribution systems. The programs, if enacted, could add billions of dollars to the Federal budget and may not be warranted for urban water distribution systems. GAO looked at water distribution systems in Boston, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. The review focused on the areas of major concern to water distribution system operators: (1) water mains, (2) metering and water inventory management, and (3) financing.

Contrary to the popular impression that older water distribution systems are already past the point of no return, the systems in Boston, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., are providing enough water for all uses. Boston experiences a relatively small number of main failures annually, but a large percentage of the system is old. To protect the system, Boston plans to rehabilitate by the year 2000 all mains that will be 100 years or older by then. New Orleans experiences a large number of main failures each year due largely to soil subsidence. In Washington, D.C., main failures are moderate compared to other cities. However, the distribution system suffers from a lack of maintenance and capital improvements due to budgetary and staffing restrictions. Controlling unaccounted-for water can help large cities conserve water and keep water rates reasonable. In addition to leakage, unaccounted-for water includes other types of non-revenue-producing water use such as firefighting, illegal water hydrant openings, and meter underregistration. Metering and surveying, intended to detect leakage and unauthorized uses, are major aids in controlling unaccounted-for water. Systems such as New Orleans' and Boston's, which are required to be financially self-sufficient or to operate at a profit, place more emphasis on controlling unaccounted-for water. Conversely, water management received less attention in Washington, D.C., where no attempt was made to achieve financial self-sufficiency.

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