If it can't be nailed down, someone in Winnipeg will figure out a way to steal it. That's why it may come as no surprise the city is struggling to stop the theft of the ultimate liquid asset.
Winnipeg is planning to tighten up its rules regarding hydrant use in order to cut down on the unauthorized use of water -- an act of theft suspected as one of the reasons behind this summer's rash of reported cases of discoloured water.
"We're having a real problem with water theft," said Winnipeg water-distribution engineer Tim Shanks, who contends H20-jacking may be responsible for some of the city's brown-water woes.
In August of this year, water-and-waste officials responded to approximately 1,600 cases of persistent discoloration of tap water, a problem rooted in a sudden change in the volume of water flowing through city distribution pipes.
Officials responded to only 600 such complaints in August 2012. The sudden rise has left water-and-waste officials scratching their heads.
Some sudden changes in water flow -- which can stir up the sediment that turns treated tap water an ugly brown -- are rooted in the fully authorized use of hydrants by contractors, Shanks said.
But there are instances where flows have fluctuated in neighbourhoods where nobody has a permit to tap into the city's water supply -- leaving officials to conclude some of that aqua is flowing illegally.
"I don't want to paint an industry with one brush, but sometimes third parties or even other parts of the city will use hydrants without telling us," said Shanks. "When you see complaints, that could be a trigger event. When people call and we have nothing (permitted) on our board, it seems mysterious."
When contractors obtain a permit to access city water, a device is placed on the hydrant in question to monitor the volume of purchased water and to prevent back flows. Water-distribution engineers can then keep track of the resulting flows.
Hydrants designated for use by contractors are identified by a splash of white paint. But too many of these hydrants exist, prompting the need to reduce the number of designated water sources for contractors, Shanks said.
A future water-use bylaw will tighten up the permission process for water use as well as reduce the locations the city's water supply can be tapped, Shanks said.
"I don't want to suggest that's the cause of all of the increase in complaints (about brown water), but we are trying to be a little restrictive on other people using hydrants," he said. "We want to be a little more picky about where we put the hydrants in general."
The practice of stealing water is new to the Winnipeg Construction Association, which represents construction contractors. "That's weird," said executive vice-president Ron Hambley. "You normally try to keep the water out of a major project."
Nonetheless, engineers are able to track the illegal use of water indirectly by monitoring the volume of water flowing into the water-distribution network. While most water flows to paying residential and industrial customers, what's left is considered "non-revenue water." Some of that flow is due to water used in flushing operations or lost to meter error. But what remains appears to be stolen, Shanks said.
Other potential causes of discoloured water include flushing operations or instances where water is turned off to facilitate major construction projects and then switched back on again, Shanks said.
The rise in persistent cases of brown water is frustrating city water engineers, who opened a $300-million, state-of-the-art water-treatment plant in 2010. That plant, however, sends water into a distribution system where some of the pipes are a century old and others are made of materials no longer considered durable.
To reduce the potential for further cases of discoloration, the city is studying the chemistry of both its pipes and its tap water to see whether it's possible to stir up less sediment, regardless of flow. "Maybe there's something we could do to stabilize the sediment," Shanks mused.
The city hired consulting firm CH2M Hill to pose potential solutions to the problem last fall, before the recent spate of discoloration reports emerged.