CHARLESTON (AP) - Nearly 25 percent of the water leaving West Virginia's water plants disappeared even before it reached faucets last year, according to filings with the state Public Service Commission.
About 17 billion gallons went unaccounted for in fiscal year 2012, vanishing somewhere in a system of overflowing tanks and a maze of leaky pipes and gaskets.
Nearly 65 percent of the 395 water utilities in the state are not compliant with the state regulatory standards for acceptable amounts of water loss. PSC standards require that utilities' "unaccounted for" lost water is no more than 15 percent of the total water pumped.
City employees repair a water line break in February at 22nd and Main streets in Wheeling.
While more than 30 percent of the water that leaves water plants is lost, utilities know where about 6 percent of the lost water goes - identified leaks, pipe flushing and fire departments.
The issue remains a balancing act for water utilities, which must weigh the cost of the lost water with the cost of making repairs to aging water systems, some of which have pipes that are 75 to 100 years old.
"If you're in an area that has very difficult topography and it's a very old system, obviously it's going to be extremely expensive to get down to 15 percent for some of those utilities," Susan Small, communications director for the PSC, said. "Big system overhauls cost something, too. It's up to the utility to determine what the cost effectiveness of each repair that they want to make is."
Regulators don't normally deal too much with the unaccounted-for water rates unless utilities ask to increase their rates, Small said.
"When a utility would come and file for a rate increase, they would be asked to explain if they had an excess of unaccounted-for water," Small said. "It's all done on a case-by-case basis - there's no usual or always - but it's up to the utility to conform with our rules and to supply safe and reasonably priced drinking water."
The state's largest water utility West Virginia American Water's rate of unaccounted-for water was 28 percent in fiscal 2012. The company serves 288 communities, including Charleston and Huntington, in 15 counties in West Virginia and pumps more than 18 billion gallons of water per year - five times more than the state's second-largest water utility, the Morgantown Utility Board.
Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American, said the company surveyed more than 2,300 miles of water mains in 2012 and repaired more than 3,200 leaks.
Jordan pointed to the need to weigh the cost of lost water versus the cost of making repairs.
"Our company is committed to providing value to our customers by operating as efficiently as possible at the lowest cost," Jordan wrote in an e-mail, "and water loss is an area where efforts must balance between costs of water production and costs to reduce loss."