The Hidden Link: Water Leakage, Carbon Emissions & Climate Change

actively leaking pipe

| By Will Jernigan

The drinking water industry plays a vital role in ensuring access to clean and safe water for communities across North America. However, beneath the surface of this essential infrastructure lies a pervasive issue that extends beyond water conservation – the connection between pipe network leakage and its impact on carbon emissions and climate change.

The United States boasts an extensive and aging drinking water infrastructure, with millions of miles of pipes delivering water to homes, businesses, and industries. However, the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently grades the nation’s drinking water infrastructure as subpar, highlighting the need for significant improvements. Aging pipes, excessive pressures, and many other factors lead to pipeline leaks, feeding steady and naturally rising levels of water loss. Recent developments in the water industry are improving our ability to quantify the impact of unmanaged leakage on avoidable carbon emissions. Addressing leakage is not only crucial for water sustainability but also for mitigating the water industry’s contribution to climate change.

Making the Connection

The notion of the water-energy nexus is not new. For many years the environmental impact of pipe network leakage has been recognized as going beyond water waste. Energy-intensive water treatment and distribution processes are required to pump and treat water before it reaches consumers. The treatment and delivery of water demands a significant amount of energy, and when leaks occur, the energy used in treating lost water becomes an added burden on the environment. The extraction, treatment and distribution of water are responsible for a considerable portion of the industry’s overall carbon emissions. This results in an avoidable increase in carbon emissions, contributing to the carbon footprint of the drinking water industry. By addressing pipe network leakage, the drinking water systems can not only conserve water but also reduce their carbon footprint.

Even armed with this knowledge, the industry as a whole has not significantly ramped up its prioritization of leakage management. This is understandable, given so many other urgent priorities like lead and PFAS that water systems are facing right now. However, there is renewed vigor around making the connection between leakage and carbon, making it easier to quantify, and making it easier to prioritize within a water system’s corporate goals.

Policy and Practice Innovations: The Leakage Emissions Initiative

Every two years, the AWWA North American Water Loss (NAWL) Conference showcases the latest case studies and developments in policy, practice, and technology. The most recent event just took place in December 2023, and featured this topic center-stage at its plenary closing panel. The panel included industry-leading voices from the perspective of the water utilities, technology providers, and subject-matter experts. Central to this discussion was the Leakage Emissions Initiative (LEI), formulated in 2023.

The LEI is a collaborative of water loss and climate change experts from the AWWA Water Loss Control Committee and the IWA Water Loss Specialists Group, including over 50 experts from approximately 22 nations. The LEI primary goals:

  • Easily quantify carbon emissions from leakage.
  • Develop a carbon leakage credit trading market to create new incentives and funding sources for leakage reduction projects.

The first goal has already been met, with the publication of the LEI Initial White Paper and calculation tools, both freely available at The latter goal is under way and gaining momentum, with planning and interest from carbon registries and verification bodies that already existing serving other carbon markets.

Unmanaged leakage is an unnecessary drain on resources that can be responsibly and efficiently utilized elsewhere.

Technological Innovations: Data and AI

Advancements in technology offer promising solutions to combat pipe network leakage and its associated environmental impacts. Smart sensor technologies, artificial intelligence, and data analytics can provide real-time monitoring of water infrastructure, enabling early detection of leaks. Proactive maintenance and targeted repairs based on data-driven insights can significantly reduce water loss and its associated carbon emissions. All of these advancements, on full display at NAWL 2023, strike at the heart of leakage by reducing the time it takes to become aware of, find, and fix leaks.

The Road Ahead

The drinking water industry is at a crossroads, facing challenges that extend beyond traditional concerns of water availability and quality. Unmanaged leakage is an unnecessary drain on resources that can be responsibly and efficiently utilized elsewhere. Unmanaged leakage yields wasted water and carbon emissions that generate no benefit. Unmanaged leakage has far-reaching consequences for carbon emissions and climate change. By understanding the carbon impact of leakage, embracing technological innovations and implementing proactive measures, the industry can not only conserve water but also contribute to a more sustainable and resilient future.

As North America addresses the broad trends shaping the drinking water industry, a focus on leakage reduction emerges as a critical step towards a more sustainable and climate-resilient water infrastructure.

Will Jernigan, P.E., is partner and chief operating officer at Cavanaugh, a nationally recognized leader in water loss management and bioenergy. He is chair of AWWA’s North American Water Loss Conference and a principle author on the M36 Manual for Water Loss Control. Jernigan has 22 years in the industry and was appointed in 2017 as the United States expert to an international task force for developing the ISO Water Loss Standards.

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