City water leakage ‘astonishingly’ high

This graphic shows water system leakage in Walla Walla and a comparison to the same problem in Spokane.

This graphic shows water system leakage in Walla Walla and a comparison to the same problem in Spokane. Walla Walla Trends graphic


“Whiskey’s for drinking. Water’s for fighting over!”

Maybe the 19th century, which gave us Mark Twain, to whom that quote is often attributed, wasn’t as quaint as we thought as we consider water balances in the early 21st century.

Western water issues are in the news nearly daily, whether they are water rights in Southern Oregon, aquifer depletion in Odessa, Wash., or the severe rationing now in place in California.

This year, the news is particularly troubling closer to home.

As of July 1, the U.S. Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska characterized most of Walla Walla County as in a moderate drought. Columbia County was a little better off with a label of “abnormally dry,” while Franklin and most of Benton counties were shaded as in “severe drought.”

Still, this assessment of Southeast Washington is not nearly as bad for California, where most of the state is characterized by the Monitor at the highest levels of alarm — “extreme” and “exceptional.” Since the summer watering season is underway, now is a good time to consider two indicators on the Trends site.

Walla Walla Trend No. 4.8 captures total water usage of the city of Walla Walla, home to 54 percent of the county’s population. The information comes from a new Washington Department of Health database of water systems around the state. Data for the county cover two irrigation districts, a couple of small residential developments and the municipal water departments of Walla Walla, College Place and Waitsburg. For now, the Trends indicator tracks only the city of Walla Walla.

Total water usage in the city has declined since the series started in 2001. For 2013, the city pumped 3.46 billion gallons, down from 3.99 billion in 2001. This decline has occurred in the face of an increase in the city population of 2,451. Yet, the 2013 total rose from its low in 2011 by about 110,000 gallons. Is this start of a reversal in Walla Walla?

On a per capita basis, the answer is no.

Trend No. 3.9, tracks this dimension and the last four years show the trend to be flat. It has declined substantially, from 129,000 gallons per person/year in 2001 to approximately 99,000 in 2013. But if a city objective is to continually lower the amount consumed per household, that goal has not been met recently.

Trend No. 3.9 uses Spokane as a benchmark. Both communities sport semi-arid climates although Walla Walla receives 2-3 more inches of precipitation per year. In 2013, Walla Walla residents were responsible for about 6,000 gallons/person more than their Spokane counterparts. For all the years tracked, Walla Walla municipal residents accounted for more water use than those of Spokane County’s largest city. The difference, however, has narrowed over time: in 2001, the gap between Walla Walla and Spokane residents was nearly 20,000 gallons per person.

While one might characterize Walla Walla’s recent conservation efforts as modestly successful, the same can’t be said of water loss by the city. This is represented by the line in the graph Trend No. 4.8. While the loss rate — leakage as a share of total water pumped — has declined, it is still astonishingly high. In 2013, for every 100 gallons pumped by the city, only 69 gallons reached users’ meters. As the graph reveals, that loss rate is far higher than Spokane. And the 2013 rate was far higher than Yakima, at 16.4 percent, College Place, at 4.1 percent, Pasco, at 0.5 percent or Richland, at 0.0 percent.

Undoubtedly, leakages from the system are a reflection of the advanced years of Walla Walla’s infrastructure compared to its neighbors to the west. Assuming that the overarching goal of water conservation in the Walla Walla Valley is to match withdrawals with recharge rates, further residential conservation measures will certainly help. But an even greater boost will come from overhauling the city’s water distribution system.

D. Patrick Jones, Ph.D., is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University. More detail on the economics of Walla Walla County can be found at, a project maintained by EWU and funded by the Port of Walla Walla.


oneStarman 9 months, 3 weeks ago

It is said by the City that repair of aging Utilities will take a HUNDRED YEARS to Complete. One has to wonder where all the Taxes and Fees have gone over the years that the City and County of Walla Walla collected but failed to use to maintain the Utilities those Taxes and Fees were to be used for.


dogman12 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Think about it: City water is drawn from Mill Creek way upstream, in the foothills. then we spend "a ton" of money to make all of it meet Federal Drinking water standards. (Some of which, like the cryptosporidium mandate, are extreme overkill.) Then, only 70% of that expensive water spins a meter to generate revenue. We'll get to the 30% in a minute.

Then, in the summer months at least, "a bunch" of that water is used to water plants and lawns. (And you pay sewer and treatment bond costs with that, too, even though it is irrelevant to that use.)

Now, the 30% that leaks: where does it go? Into the shallow gravel aquifer, is where. which in and of itself is not a bad thing. We spend "half a ton" of money injecting water with the aquifer recharge wells, anyway.

So is this leakage "astonishing" because it recharges the shallow aquifer, or because it doesn't generate revenue to offset the costs of treatment?


oldguyonabike 9 months, 3 weeks ago

The leakage also does a very good job of watering our urban trees while at the same time providing a robust root structure that has wreaked havoc on the sidewalks. Some cities have a sidewalk program that helps provide maintenence funds for sidewalk repair.


dogman12 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Good point! So, if we reduce leakage to 5%, then property owners will need to run more drinking water through meters to keep the trees happy? Not a bad thing, just speculating.

As long as we are looking out 100 years to fully maintain our water infrastructure, why not slowly and steadily build a parallel system of non-drinking water for grounds use? Still metered, but at a lower rate.


namvet60 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Some cities use effluent water for large areas such as golf courses and long stretches of areas that need water. It's not potable but keeps foliage nice and green. It is very cost effective in some cases.


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