STONINGTON, Maine — Once again, Stonington is scratching its head, looking for the missing water.
Water pumped into the Stonington Water Co. system is seemingly vanishing. Earlier this month, more than 30,000 gallons went missing over a two-day period. And though there aren’t firm numbers available, water company officials suspect more is gone too.
While a leak is always the first suspect in a water-supply mystery, one key fact makes a leak unlikely: The water doesn’t disappear every day.
“There’s a problem, and at this point we just don’t know what it is,” said Donna Brewer, a Stonington selectwoman and president of the water company. “It’s not every day, and that just makes it even harder. One day we’re down, the next day we’re not down so much.”
Water has gone missing in Maine’s lobster capital before: Between October 2009 and January 2010, about 1.2 million gallons of water disappeared from the water company tanks. At an average of 15 minutes, that’s 32,000 showers. Or 400,000 flushes.
The water company continued to pump more water than it could account for until July, when the bleeding suddenly, and mysteriously, stopped. In the meantime, the water company increased the base rate for its customers by $10 to account for the losses.
Now once again, water officials are left seeking answers for where the water’s going. After Stone first noticed the problem earlier this month, a call went out to Ron Boivin, a circuit rider with the Maine Rural Water Association.
Boivin investigated the system and did find a leaky water main at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Church Street. That leak was repaired, but the losses haven’t stopped.
“Two years ago, we had a real problem in Stonington, and it all went away last year. We had no problem,” Boivin said. “All of a sudden it’s starting up again. We found the leak last week and thought the problem was solved, but I’m worried that what happened two years ago may be starting up again.”
Stonington Water Co. Superintendent Roger Stone urges a more cautious approach. He said that while the town is missing water again, the losses don’t even approach the torrent that disappeared in the past.
“I don’t think this is a continuation of that horror,” he said in a recent interview.
For most of last week, water levels in the town’s 488,000-gallon standpipe have hovered between two-fifths and one-half full. Brewer said that’s enough to cover the water company’s 285 customers, but the town needs more in case of a fire.
“That would really not be a good situation,” Brewer said. “Our fire departments have been told that if there is a fire, they need to draw from the ocean. Their new truck can do that. But if we have someone come in as backup, they might try to draw from the hydrants. That wouldn’t be a good thing.”
While it’s unclear exactly how much water is leaving the system, aside from the 30,000 gallons originally reported, Stone said he had to turn on the wells that normally are only necessary in the summer months, when there’s more demand on the system.
Stone said that customers don’t need to be overworried about the losses and seemed optimistic that the problem would be solved. The town has contracted Olver Associates, a Winterport engineering firm that specializes in water systems, to investigate the problem, and the company has already toured the town’s pump station and gotten copies of flow records.
While leaks or frozen pipes could account for the losses, Boivin said it’s not out of the question that someone could be stealing water by venting a pipe before the flow is metered. That would result in the water “missing” from town tallies.
“If you’re a plumber, or your second cousin’s brother in-law is a plumber, you can do a lot,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.