Texas utility company adding security locks on fire hydrants

The Ector County Utility District is adding security features to fire hydrants in West Odessa to maintain system integrity and curb water theft


Courtney Borchert
Odessa American, Texas

ECTOR COUNTY, Texas — The Ector County Utility District is adding security features to fire hydrants in West Odessa to maintain system integrity and curb water theft.

ECUD President Tommy Ervin said the plan is to install fire hydrant locking devices on all 476 hydrants within the utility district starting with areas experiencing water volume and pressure problems.

The greatest demand placed on the ECUD system is at about 9:45 p.m. and impacts those living in more densely populated areas of the county the most. Ervin said he wants to target areas with low pressure first because they are more vulnerable.

ECUD board member Terry Swan said the locks were being installed to prevent unauthorized water usage and theft.

“If they start taking water at 9:45 at night and they lower the pressure in an already low-pressure area, that’s just going to make our system worse,” Ervin said.

The cost to up security is about $75,000 for both the hydrant valve devices and barrel locks, which comes out of the utility district’s general fund.

Supplies were ordered mid-March but only about 150 devices have been delivered to the utility district’s office. Ervin said installation will begin once locks arrive.

Ervin said adding locks will give ECUD more control and reduce opportunities for those without permission to access the hydrants. Keys will be given to Odessa Fire Rescue, the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department, the South Ector County Volunteer Fire Department, the Ector County Highways and Streets Department and a handful will be kept for the utility district’s use.

Ervin said residents should call the Ector County Sheriff’s Office if they suspect a hydrant is being wrongfully used.

ECSO spokesperson Sgt. Gary Duesler said the average number of calls the sheriff’s office receives regarding water theft is about one or two reports a month. The most recent call occurred Wednesday after a resident reportedly saw a tanker truck stealing water from a hydrant.

Duesler said a law enforcement officer responded to the call and discovered the individual had a permit.

“Some of these companies buy permits from the city to extract water from the hydrants and they would have that permit on them,” he said.

Duesler said it is more often a misunderstanding than a theft.

Last summer a water pipeline leak detection company inspected the 147 miles of ECUD’s system and Ervin said “they found some leaks and they found some theft.”

City Billing and Collections Director Gapi Bernal said water theft is always a problem throughout the water industry.

Water loss can occur from a combination of undetected leaks, illegally installed taps and direct water theft.

“Sometimes it may be around a million gallons a month,” Ervin said. “There was one month in July of 2017 where it was almost 10 million gallons in one month so I don’t know if that’s theft as far as trucks stealing out of our flush valves, if that’s leaks or theft through illegal taps that somebody has made on the weekend without us knowing about it or the city knowing about it.”

Bernal said finding illegal water connections in the ground is more common. He said that more often it is someone that is an account holder with the city who is accessing the hydrants, but those who are not authorized are difficult to catch.

Ervin said the response time of ECSO is not always quick enough to arrive on the scene before the person has unhooked from the hydrant and driven away.

Ervin said the water loss is frustrating but ECUD is working to address system deficiencies using a multi-pronged approach that involves leak monitoring and more efforts going toward water theft prevention.

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©2019 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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