A concerted effort involving some high technology has made huge improvements in the city's perennial problem of leaky water lines, city officials say.
Two years ago, the city was losing more than 40 percent of the water pumped from its filtration plant before it reached faucets.
New equipment has reduced the loss to about 10 percent, Michael W. Diel, director of utilities, said last week.
"We're kind of excited," Diel said, crediting the Water Department's crews. "Those guys have really been out there doing the job," he said.
"Every time you get one [leak] repaired, and you don't have to fix it anymore, you have more time to find leaks," he explained.
"It's finally paying off," said Alan Campisano, the water maintenance and distribution supervisor who started the leak detection program.
Campisano describes a key tool as "a glorified stethoscope" that allows workers to detect possible leaks while walking along a street.
A computerized correlator on a valve monitors water flow.
A spike on the screen indicates a nearby leak, and the listening device then can pinpoint the location.
Geographic Information System software is used to catalog the location, age and diameter of every water line.
The detection strategy is paying off.
Paula Sattelberg, the city director of water and wastewater operations, said that, on one recent day, a Bailey recorder, which records the hourly water flow, showed that leakage during the overnight period was practically zero.
Leakage continues, but at a reduced rate, during the daytime and evenings when water demand is far higher.
In September, the city drew an average of 6.7 million gallons of water a day from the Niagara River at North Tonawanda and pumped it to the Summit Street filtration plant. Almost 6.5 million gallons were pumped out to customers.
The rest, Diel said, was used to backwash the plant's 12 filters; at least some are cleaned every day.
Although October figures were not complete, Sattelberg said less than 6.6 million gallons was pumped out on the busiest day of the month, within 100,000 of the 6.7 million-gallon inflow figure.
"We're within 100,000 gallons, which is pretty good," Mayor Michael W. Tucker said. "It's as much as three times better. [Losing water] has been a big criticism of us."
Things have improved since the days when the city couldn't even detect a leak unless the water happened to come to the surface.
On one occasion, Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, chairman of the Common Council's Water and Sewer Com
mittee, recalled that a pipe burst under Lock Street and water wound up "squirting out of the canal wall."
Detecting leaks has been difficult because water lines are laid in such a way that the lost water usually drains away quickly.
"We have sewers nearby; we have creeks nearby; and you don't know they're leaking," Schrader said. "We're sitting on a rock shelf because we're on the [Niagara] Escarpment. [Water] seeks the path of least resistance and runs to a sewer or creek."
But the city's water problems result from the age of the pipes. Some lines, Diel said, date back to the 1880s.
During the World War II years, the city's water system underwent a major expansion, but wartime conditions conspired against the long-term strength of the pipes.
"That was bad pipe, because all the good metal then was being used to build tanks and airplanes and armor," Diel said.
The city has made plans to replace some of its leakiest 6-inch water lines next year with new 8-inch pipe, as required by state regulations to assure flow strength through fire hydrants, Diel said.
Schrader said work will affect Massachusetts Avenue, Gaffney Road and Woodbury and Jefferson drives. Diel said Allen and Church streets also are possibilities for next year. Sewer lines as well as water lines will be replaced.