The Importance of Routine Water Loss Surveys and Subsurface Utility Locating & Mapping for Major Metropolitan Areas

Atlanta’s Recent Water Main Breaks Provide a Timely Reminder

The Importance of Routine Water Loss Surveys and Subsurface Utility Locating & Mapping for Major Metropolitan Areas

Atlanta’s Recent Water Main Breaks Provide a Timely Reminder

Routine water loss surveys, video pipe inspections, and subsurface utility locating & mapping are vital for the sustainable management of water and sewer infrastructure in major metropolitan areas. These practices help identify and address issues before they escalate into crises, ensuring a reliable water supply and preventing costly disruptions. The recent water main breaks in Atlanta serve as a stark reminder of the critical importance of these preventative measures.

Understanding Water Loss Surveys

Water loss surveys involve systematic inspections of water distribution systems to detect and repair leaks. These surveys use advanced technologies such as acoustic sensors, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), algorithmic leak correlators, and data analytics to pinpoint leak locations with high precision. By identifying leaks early, water utilities can prevent significant water loss (non-revenue water – NRW), reduce repair costs, and plan maintenance to avoid service interruptions.

Brown water gushes up out of a sinkhole in asphalt created by a large water line leak
Small water leaks can become emergency nightmares for large cities when undetected.

The Role of Subsurface Utility Locating and Mapping in Supporting Non-Revenue Water Reclamation

Subsurface utility locating and mapping is the process of identifying and mapping the positions of underground utilities, including water pipes, gas lines, telecommunications lines, sanitary and storm sewer pipes, and electrical cables, among others. This practice employs technologies like electromagnetic locators, GPR, and advanced GPS/GNSS/RTK systems to create accurate maps of underground infrastructure. Accurate utility maps are essential for preventing accidental damage during construction and maintenance activities especially in large metro areas with a glutted labyrinth of utilities to maintain.

The outdoor signage for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Domestic Terminal.
Atlanta’s major air hub was forced to restrict operations as part of the water emergency.

Atlanta's Water Main Breaks: A Cautionary Tale

The recent water main breaks in Atlanta highlight the severe consequences of failing to maintain and monitor water infrastructure adequately. On May 31, 2024, multiple major water main breaks occurred, causing widespread water outages and low water pressure across the city. One of the breaks was at the intersection of three major water supply lines, which affected essential services, including hospitals, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Fulton County Jail, businesses, and residential areas, leading to significant disruptions.

The City of Atlanta’s Mayor, Andre Dickens was forced to declare a State of Emergency on June 2, 2024, while the breaks are repaired so that services can be restored. The city has been delivering water overland to two fire stations so that those affected can have drinking water.

The Atlanta Department of Watershed Management identified corrosion in 80-year-old steel pipes as a primary cause of the breaks. The resulting outages forced Emory Midtown Hospital to divert patients and rely on tanker trucks to supply water for cooling systems and personal care needs.

Janet Christenbury, Director of Media Relations for the hospital said in a statement that the hospital expected to return to normal operations on June 3, 2024, “Tomorrow, we will operate on regular schedules for outpatient doctor’s appointments, procedures and surgeries.”  

Numerous businesses and tourist attractions were also impacted, with some forced to close temporarily due to the lack of water.

Mayor Dickens acknowledged the severity of the situation, stating that the city's water infrastructure had experienced setbacks and delays in repairs. The incident underscored the urgent need for proactive maintenance and monitoring of water systems to prevent such crises from occurring.

Preventing Future Crises

Routine water loss surveys and subsurface utility locating and mapping can help prevent the types of crises experienced in Atlanta. These practices enable municipalities to:

  1. Identify and Repair Leaks Early: Regular water loss surveys detect leaks before they become major issues, reducing water loss and minimizing repair costs. Early detection also helps maintain water pressure and service continuity.
  2. Prevent Utility Strikes: Accurate subsurface utility maps guide construction and maintenance crews, preventing accidental damage to underground utilities. This reduces the risk of service disruptions and costly repairs.
  3. Extend Infrastructure Lifespan: Proactive maintenance extends the lifespan of water infrastructure, delaying the need for expensive replacements and ensuring reliable service.
  4. Enhance Emergency Preparedness: Detailed knowledge of subsurface utilities allows for better emergency response planning. In the event of a break or leak, repair crews can quickly locate and address the problem, minimizing downtime.

The Path Forward

For major metropolitan areas in the U.S., investing in routine water loss surveys and subsurface utility locating and mapping is essential. These practices not only ensure the efficient operation of water systems but also safeguard public health and safety. The Atlanta water main breaks serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of proactive infrastructure management.

Municipalities must prioritize the implementation of advanced technologies and best practices in water infrastructure maintenance. By doing so, they can prevent disruptions, protect essential services, and provide a reliable water supply to their communities.

Routine water loss surveys and subsurface utility locating and mapping are critical components of effective water infrastructure management. The recent events in Atlanta underscore the need for these practices to prevent crises and ensure the sustainability of water systems in major metropolitan areas. By investing in proactive maintenance and monitoring, cities can protect their residents, businesses, and essential services from the severe impacts of water main breaks and other infrastructure failures.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does leak locating work?

You can learn more about leak detection and water loss surveys, here.

Can a city purchase its own leak detection equipment?

The short answer is yes, however, just because you have the equipment doesn’t mean you can accurately locate pressurized water line leaks. You can learn more about how to utilize leak detection equipment, here.