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Oxford's water mystery
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There's a mystery afoot in Oxford.

But this mystery involves something more tangible than ghosts or the haunting undead; the city is trying to find the source of its missing water.

For several years, Oxford has regularly purchased more water than it sells, according to Councilman Terry Smith, costing the city about $54,000 over the last three years.

And this loss has exasperated city officials, leaving them scratching their heads.

"It's been a mystery to me. It's been a mystery to (the public works supervisor)," said Smith, at the July city council meeting. "We've tried everything we could."

For the last two years, Oxford reported an approximately 19 percent average loss per month and 17 percent average monthly loss in 2006 and 2007, and about 7.5 percent per month for the first half of 2008.

This could come from any number of things, such as an unseen water main leak, consumers using water without being billed, water being sucked back into the system inadvertently and malfunctioning meters, explained Smith.

He pointed out the state deems acceptable an average of 10 percent loss from activities such as the fire department testing and flushing out the water system, and for a few years, the city fell within those norms. He described the 900 or so consumers' usage as typical for most municipalities - averaging about 5,200 to 6,500 gallons a month.

But even more interesting are the wild fluctuations in loss percentage. During the first six months of 2008, the reported water loss swung from 22 percent, 20 percent, 5 percent, 17 percent and 1.5 percent. Then in June, the city sold 31 percent more water than it purchased. Similar swings were seen in 2006 and 2007 as well.

"These fluctuations, it's just totally wacky to me," said Councilmember Jim Windham. "It makes no sense at all."

Smith said the city has been examining all sorts of possible reasons for the water loss.

"We tried to do it without obligating the city to spend a lot of money," he said.

They checked and calibrated the meters, looked at when the meters were read, examined if a two or four day swing affected the amount charged and examined usage patterns to see when students were present at two of the city's biggest water users - Palmer-Stone Elementary School and Oxford College - all to no avail. About five years ago the city installed double check valve meters.

The city is currently trying to check master meters that measure the transfer from the city of Covington's pipes to the city of Oxford's and looking at possibly installing backflow valves for three water lines that come into Oxford at Carlton Trail, Haygood Street and Emory Street.

In other business discussed during the July work session:

• The council discussed expanding ordinances that currently apply to certain streets prohibiting the passage of vehicles beyond a certain weight to apply city-wide.

• The estimated price of a possible online bill payment program and automatic radio read utility meters seemed to be higher than council members expected.

 Smith reported a rough estimate for installing automatic radio read meters for utilities to be about $90,000 for water meters and $60,000 for electric meters. With a savings of about 3 days a month of manpower, Smith estimated it would take about eight to nine years to recoup the costs of the meters. An online bill payment program would cost about $2,500 to purchase and set up and about $1,200 a year to maintain.

 "I would like for us to be able to do it, but it's hard for me to justify," said Smith.

• Resident Claude Sitton urged the council to examine and support green burials, as described in a book, "Grave Matters," by Mark Harris, which advocates biodegradable burials or cremation over non-degradable coffins, mausoleums and body-preserving chemicals.