The City of Westminster's water department loses more than one of every four gallons of water that go through the city treatment plant.
But city officials aren't sure exactly what happens to 27 percent of the water between the time it enters the treatment plant and the time it arrives -- or fails to arrive -- at customers' faucets.
They suspect much of the problem is in an aging delivery system.
"That for me is an intolerable percentage," Council President William F. Haifley said when he saw a public works report that showed the city unable to account for 582,000 of the 2.1 million gallons pumped into the system daily in 1992.
"It is serious," said Thomas B. Beyard, city planning and public works director. "Engineering-wise, when [loss] exceeds 10 or 15 percent, you have to take a hard look at it."
City officials expect Westminster's approximately 7,000 water customers to pay $1.5 million for water in 1992-1993. If the water that is unaccounted for could be found and billed to users, "it would have a significant impact on revenues," Mr. Beyard said.
The public works director said some customers may not be paying for all the water they use because their water meters under-report their usage. Leaking water mains also may be a major source of loss.
Mr. Beyard said the city plans to hire a consultant before June 30, the end of the fiscal year, to investigate whether poor meters or leaking mains are the major source of the unaccounted-for water. He said the council then will have to decide whether to budget money for repairs in 1993-1994 or to focus on water conservation.
Mr. Haifley voiced criticism of the city government for its lack of a water conservation program.
Westminster's system is still using water meters that were installed as long ago as 1937.
"Just like the human body, meters when they get old don't function as well," Mr. Beyard said. "The guts of them don't work."
A similar report from Mr. Beyard in March 1992 prompted the council to allocate $10,000 in the current city budget to retain the consultant and replace some of the old meters.
The city system has lost an average of one in four gallons since 1986, Mr. Beyard's figures show. That year, 28.7 percent of the total could not be unaccounted for; in 1987, it was 24.9 percent; in 1988, 23.4 percent; in 1989, 18.6 percent; in 1990, 24.5 percent; and, in 1991, 25.6 percent.
Westminster's water mains are also old.
"We have some that date back to the 1800s," said Thomas P. Owens, the city's water distribution supervisor.
Mr. Owens said city work crews have uncovered abandoned wooden water mains. No wooden mains remain in use in the city system, but city officials donated some of the historic mains to the county Farm Museum for display.
Westminster has 75 miles of water mains, ranging from 2 to 16 inches in diameter, Mr. Owens said. The lines are laid in a patchwork system, in which two or even three small mains may run beneath a city street.
Mr. Owens said that when the State Highway Administration rebuilt Pennsylvania Avenue from The Forks to Union Street several years ago, work crews took out a 4-inch and a 6-inch main and replaced it with a 12-inch main. The larger main is expected to improve water supply and pressure.
City officials know they also lose some water by flushing the mains, but they don't know how much.
Mr. Owens said it has not been practical to monitor water used during flushing. Each spring, his crews flush all the mains in the city. Each fall, they flush again in areas that draw complaints about the taste or odor of the water.
Paula Martin, superintendent of the water treatment plant, said that flushing is needed because sediment builds up in the lines, particularly in "quiet areas" where less water flows through because there are fewer customers or customers use less.