Imagine filling your bathtub and watching 41 percent of the water leak onto your bathroom floor.
That's what happens every day beneath the streets of Buffalo, according to a first-of-a-kind study that examines leaks in the aging water system.
The city pumps 29.6 billion gallons of water each year. But nearly 12 billion gallons goes down the proverbial drain. Most of the water is lost through leaks and bursts in the city's 900-mile maze of pipes. Another five billion gallons is lost through leaks in pipes that are the responsibility of private property owners -- service lines that connect the main system to homes and businesses.
Another jolting discovery is that Buffalo only collects revenue for 46 percent of the water it pumps. The Water Board receives no revenue for about four billion gallons of water used in city buildings, recreational facilities, fire hydrants and even by some cultural and community groups. Another 600 million gallons is stolen by water pirates who tamper with meters and take extreme measures to restore service after water has been turned off for nonpayment.
This same water system has raised rates for metered customers by 64 percent in the past four years and increased flat-rate bills by 55 percent.
Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana lamented that the 12 billion gallons of lost water would be enough to operate a small city. "This is a huge natural resource that we're wasting," said Fontana as lawmakers reviewed the study's findings Tuesday.
Officials have known for decades that Buffalo loses much of its water to leaks and other deficiencies. Estimates of the loss have ranged from 15 percent of the pumped water to as high as 50 percent. But until the city commissioned the study, no one could pinpoint the problem's magnitude.
Some say fixing most of the problems would cost far more money than it would end up saving. Most water lines were installed between 1880 and 1890, and from 1920 to 1930. Some lines date back to the mid-1800s.
The city has typically spent $7 million to $8 million a year to upgrade the water system, but officials admit that is less than half of what is needed to keep up with problems.
A year ago, the Erie County Water Authority's four-year quest to buy Buffalo's water system was derailed when city officials said there were too many unanswered questions.
But even if the city doubled the amount it spends on water line work, experts say Buffalo would still lose billions of gallons. Launching a massive overhaul would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, warned Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy.