When Erie County conducted a water audit earlier this year to figure out how much water leaked out of the distribution system, the results were shocking.
About 34 percent of the water apparently disappeared on its way to the tap, sanitary engineer Jack Meyers said.
The county responded by hiring a Marion company, Underground Water Utilities, for about $20,000 to play detective and find the leaks.
Erie County hopes to reduce the water loss figure to less than 15 percent, a more normal loss rate, Meyers said.
Meyers said the county knows some water is going to be lost. Aside from leakage from the lines, water is used for construction and when firefighters tap hydrants to put out fires. But something is wrong when more than 30 percent of the water is missing, he said.
During 2007, Erie County bought 1,785 million gallons of water, mostly from Sandusky but also from Huron and Vermilion. Water meter records show it sold 1,178 million gallons to customers, leaving 607 million gallons unaccounted for.
If the county could reduce its losses to about 15 percent, it would save about $615,000 a year, Meyers said.
Underground Water Utilities found dozens of possible leak locations and then gave the county a list of 35 confirmed leaks, Meyers said. County workers are plugging them one by one, he said.
Gene Rigby, the president of Underground Water Utilities, said his company uses sensitive listening devices to find the leaks.
Using electronic equipment placed at fire hydrants and valves, the company's workers listen for the sound of water leaking away.
"The water as it's going out of the leak transmits sounds down the pipe wall," he said.
With the help of computers, the company tries to figure out where the leak is, and then confirms the location.
"We can go to where this is at and listen above the ground and hear the leak," he said.
The company finished work in Erie County last week, he said, after checking about 200 miles of pipe.
Erie County is not the only local government that struggles with water leaks. During a meeting with officials from Sandusky and Huron, Meyers learned it's a problem in those two cities, too.
Rigby said his company also carried out a leak investigation for Sandusky, checking 100 miles of pipe and wrapping up work about two weeks ago.
Kathryn McKillips, Sandusky's city engineer, said information on the city's water losses was not immediately available Thursday.
Andy White, Huron city manager, said his water staff calculates the city lost 38 percent of its water in 2007.
"It's the worst it's been in several years," White said, adding that he expects a better year in 2008.
The city plans to install an automatic meter reading system that will make it easier to track water use and locate where water might be missing, he said.
Huron also recently discovered and fixed a big leak in a water main near Cleveland Road, White said.
"There was a deep cavern, which demonstrated the leak had been present for some time," White said. "When we shut that down for the repair, our water levels responded very positively."