Stonington’s water no longer vanishing — but where did millions of gallons go?

Posted April 06, 2011, at 1:13 p.m.
Last modified April 06, 2011, at 7:39 p.m.
Roger Stone, superintendent at the Stonington Water Company, stands in front of one of the gauges he checks to monitor the amount of water pumped through the system. An unexplained problem last year saw as much as 600,000 gallons a month disappearing from the system.That problem has since resolved itself.
Roger Stone, superintendent at the Stonington Water Company, stands in front of one of the gauges he checks to monitor the amount of water pumped through the system. An unexplained problem last year saw as much as 600,000 gallons a month disappearing from the system.That problem has since resolved itself.

STONINGTON, Maine — The mystery of Stonington’s disappearing water remains just that: a mystery.

Each month over a nine-month period from November 2009 to July 2010, the Stonington Water Co. system lost as much as 600,000 gallons of treated water.

That massive water loss ceased without explanation last summer, and now, more than eight months after the problem apparently resolved itself, company officials remain puzzled over how that much water could escape from the system and where it all went.

“We covered every damned place we could think of and we never found it,” said Roger Stone, the water company superintendent.

Stone recently prepared a report for the town’s selectmen, who serve as the water company’s officials, complete with charts showing pressure readings, flow readings and pumping rates tracking the loss of town water.

The loss of millions of gallons of water cost the utility in several areas, including the loss of treated water, pumping (electricity) costs, equipment replacement, and time spent searching for the problem. Electricity costs alone doubled to more than $14,000 and the company had to replace a pump that burned out at a cost of $7,000.

Though Stone did not cite total costs, he said they were high enough to justify a rate increase last fall that raised the base rate for residential customers by $10 to $72 per quarter.

Stone said he first noticed high water usage in November 2009. Although he checks meters daily, he said, it wasn’t until then that he noticed a pattern.

“All of a sudden, I realized that we were getting high readings every Thursday morning,” he said. “All of a sudden, we were pumping 30,000 gallons more than usual.”

The water always disappeared on Wednesdays, and Stone discovered the losses when he read the meters Thursday mornings.

A check of older readings indicated that the problem may have started sporadically as far back as April 2009.

Over the next several months, as Stone looked for the reason behind the disappearing water, the problem got worse. In October 2009, the water company lost a total of 200,000 gallons of treated water; in November, the loss was 400,000 gallons; and in December, it jumped to 600,000 gallons.

In March 2010, at the height of the problem, the water company pumped a total of 1,441,200 gallons, averaging about 46,490 gallons daily, though the loss still occurred only on Wednesdays every week, according to Stone’s records. This year, with the problem seemingly resolved, the company pumped just 663,700 gallons, about 21,420 gallons per day.

“We’re pumping half as much as we were back then,” Stone said.

The missing water wasn’t going through the water company meters that measure individual or business water usage. Nor were there large amounts of water flowing into the treatment plant. They ruled out someone trucking the water out of town, and there was no indication that it was just being dumped.

“If somebody was dumping that much water, it’s going to show up someplace,’’ Stone said.

Stone, together with his wife, used microphones in an effort to detect running water in the system. Ron Boivin, a circuit rider with Maine Rural Water Association, made 13 visits to the town using a high-tech listening device in an effort to locate the problem. Although they found  some small leaks in the system, Boivin said, they were not large enough to account for the amount of water the system was losing.

Like Stone, Boivin said the large water loss wasn’t a leak.

“If you’ve got a leak, it doesn’t go up and down. If there’s a hole in a pipe or a crack, it doesn’t fix itself,” he said. “We racked our brains trying to figure out who was doing this and why. We were literally pulling our hair out.”

Stone was and is still convinced that somehow, someone was bypassing the meters and drawing off large amounts of water from the system, either by accident or on purpose.

“Somebody had to be doing it,” he said. “That’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Then, last summer, as they continued to investigate, the drain on the water system ended, suddenly and without explanation, although both Stone and Boivin point to a public hearing last summer as the likely factor in ending the water loss.

The hearing on June 28 included discussion of the proposed rate increase as well as a review of what they had done and what they planned to do to find the source of the water loss. According to Boivin, they also stressed the penalties involved in tampering with a municipal water system, which, under the Patriot Act, include up to 10 years in jail and a $1 million fine.  

“The next Wednesday, there was no problem,’’ he said.

Stone continually tracked the water pressure in the system as the standpipe began to fill. By July 8, the standpipe was full, water pressure was back to normal, and usage rates had leveled off.

Water pressure remained high and steady, and for the past eight months everything has been operating as normal.

“I guess whoever was doing it figured it might be time to quit if it was going to cost money,’’ he said.

Stone said he’s relieved the problem has been resolved, and remains cautiously optimistic that it will stay resolved.  

“We’re living the happy afterlife, now,’’ he said. “But we’re still keeping a real close eye on it.”

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