CUC engineers submit ‘white paper’ on island water issues

The Commonwealth Utilities Corp. water and wastewater division wrote to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres this month on issues affecting the utility’s ability to provide reliable 24-hour water service.

According to the May 16 letter and attached “white paper,” copies of which were obtained by Saipan Tribune, some of the major issues appear to be a lack of working water meters, issues with leak detection and repair, maintenance, and replacement of old asbestos pipes, among many others.

The letter, which also pleads for a stronger “link” between water operations and engineering, is a follow-up letter that was requested by Torres after an earlier meeting on the issue.

“As you know, utilities across the states have similar issues similar to Saipan’s—an aging system that needs numerous and expensive improvements in order to provide reliable and efficient service,” said CUC chief engineer John Riegel in a two-page cover letter. “…You asked the CUC engineering division to provide recommendations as to what could be done to the water system immediately to improve the system, reduce losses, and increase the areas served with 24-hour water. Attached to this letter is a brief white paper discussing the greatest obstacles to achieving 24-hour water on Saipan.”

The paper gives a brief overview of the water system; engineering recommendations to address the “most significant and immediate needs” to reduce unaccounted for water losses and increase the system’s ability to provide 24-hour water service with estimated costs, and also comments on current situation in CUC management and its impact on the utility.

In the overview, the paper discusses the 138 wells that make up the Saipan water system, noting that about 27 wells are out of service due to collapsed well casings, failed pump/rotor, and lowered water level.

It also describes 13 distinct tank service areas, or pressure zones, which provide storage and pressure to customers that range from conditions of severely dilapidated to new.

“Unaccounted for water amounts to about 70 percent of water produced,” the CUC engineering department said. This means that of the water pumped from all wells, approximately 70 percent is not reflected in the amount billed among all metered customers.” Unaccounted for water consists of meter/billing inaccuracies, leaks and losses, and theft.

“The percent of unaccounted for water for each of these three categories cannot be quantified though CUC believes a large fraction is from leaks based on experience,” it adds.

The CUC paper submits a series of recommendations for “immediate action,” which include installing working meters for all service connections; detecting and repairing leaks throughout the system; unifying engineering and operations; budget a preventive maintenance program; completing minor upgrades such as replacing broken valves, new air release valves, and replacing undersized water lines, among others; drilling new wells to replaced deteriorated ones; replacing the “very old and asbestos pipe and galvanized iron” pipes of the system; and evaluating well pump sizes and setting to make sure they properly sized for well capacity and water is not over pumped.

On the recommendation on unifying engineering and operations, the papers states that “operations should follow the recommendations from the engineering,” suggesting this is not the case today.

“Engineering should be tasked with the effort to optimize system operations and ensure the system is operated in the most efficient manner,” the CUC paper said.

For the cost to provide for these recommendations, CUC engineers estimate an “ideal infusion” of a total of $56.5 million that would “enable CUC to make rapid progress to eliminate leaks and achieve 24-hour water.”

But, the engineering department also add that a smaller amount of funds could be used to tackle the items of “greatest impact” like installing working meters, which is already funded; leak and detection repair at about $12.5 million; budgeting preventative maintenance at $5 million per year for five years; minor upgrades at $1.5 million; drilling new wells at $1.5 million; and replacing old piping at $16 million.

The paper also notes issues with CUC management, particularly with key federal court stipulated order positions like the CUC’s executive director, which CUC “has been without…for 11 months.”

“The executive director position is vital to the success of the utility. A fully qualified and permanent executive director is needed…An experienced and knowledgeable executive director will provide the leadership necessary to the success of the utility in these challenging times.”

The paper also notes that CUC has been without a deputy executive director for four years, and has been without a division manger for operations for about 18 months.

“It is essential to the operation of the water system that a fully qualified and experienced person from the water industry be hired without delay. This position [for division manager for operations] is critical for the successful operation of the water system and as the link between engineering and operations. The operations management team is overloaded and suffering because of the absence of a permanent division manager.”

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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