Non-revenue drinking water is usually the result of leakage and spills caused by worn or neglected infrastructure. On the mean streets of Boston, a revenue loss task force grapples with these challenges, plus the threat posed by enterprising criminals.
The Boston Water and Sewer Commission’s (BWSC) Revenue Protection Division (RPD) is tasked with identifying and eliminating water theft within the municipality’s jurisdiction. The RPD is on the lookout for suspicious activity that includes meter readings mysteriously shrinking, sudden dips in consumption, and the refusal of meter or service access to city employees.
The BWSC argues that this oversight — which could be interpreted as invasive, depending on how aggressively it’s applied — is to the benefit of its customers, ensuring that costly water loss won’t result in higher rates for those who dutifully pay for their service. It encourages diligent neighbors to report suspicion of water theft directly to protect their own communities and bank accounts.
In fact, the inception of the RPD was inspired by such local tipsters over 20 years ago.
“The original creation of a revenue protection and theft of service function formally materialized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when organizations began to share information on instances of theft,” said Gerard F. Dwyer, chief administrative officer of the BWSC. “Beyond the concerns about the potential dollar value that theft might represent, the commission is mandated with assuring that charges for services are applied equitably.”
Working The Beat
The RPD consists of meter installers assigned to perform field investigations of consumption anomalies and administrative staff performing account analysis and coordinating with the commission’s legal department. This team is armed with an “appropriate legal charter [and] unambiguous regulations and fining schedule… for the identification, investigation, and prosecution of those stealing water,” according to Dwyer.
Their greatest tool for detecting theft has been a fully-deployed advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and accompanying data management software. In the 13 years the BWSC has been relying on AMI, instances of theft have been nearly eliminated.
“While the vast majority of customers have never been inclined to divert service, to attempt to do so in a fully-functioning AMI environment is folly,” Dwyer said.
The BWSC has also worked to cut down on hydrant abuse, citing this as another major initiative in its water loss reduction success story.
“A substantial majority of Boston’s hydrants are equipped with locking devices, allowing operation by only authorized individuals,” Dwyer said. “Additionally, the commission controls the use of hydrants for construction purposes via a hydrant meter permitting program.”
Overt theft can result in fines of as much as $5,000 from the BWSC, but Dwyer describes the amount of fine revenue collected relative to the agency’s overall budget as “not material.” Rather, the RPD has recovered dividends for the commission by identifying malfunctioning meters that fail to record full consumption.
The RPD, in combination with the BWSC’s leak protection program and its meter services department, which assures proper meter registering and sizing, has reduced unaccounted-for water from 50 percent in 1978 to 8 percent in 2015.
The RPD serves as a successful model, but imitators beware. The development and implementation of such a robust and effective revenue protection division took the BWSC decades, a hefty capital investment, and an all-in approach.
“Whether through the significant investment in its infrastructure, the identification of an instance of theft, or detection and repair of a leak, the effort involves stakeholders from every department in the organization, with a shared commitment to accurately account for all water purchases,” said Dwyer.
Image credit: "2008_04_21_boston_infrastructure_32," Doc Searls © 2008, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/