Water Main Breaks Cause Major Problems in San Diego and Nationwide

by on January 28, 2015 · 2 comments

in Economy, Environment, San Diego

water main break cop carBy John Lawrence

In the best of all possible worlds water main breaks would not happen. Local government would replace old water mains with new ones on a regular basis. That means that money for this and other infrastructure needs would be allocated systematically and appropriately.

If we had our priorities straight, money for infrastructure would take precedence over money for football stadiums and convention centers. But in San Diego and in fact throughout the US this rational approach is to be seen rarely if at all.

The Romans gave their citizens bread and circuses to keep them in line. Here in fact only circuses seem to be necessary.

“Not much you can do when you have water flowing in everywhere … about six inches up to my leg so I got soggy socks right now”

Instead of replacing creaky water mains on a regular basis, water main breaks occur on a regular basis. The most recent one occurred only a few days ago on Shelter Island, home of posh restaurants and yacht clubs. Oh, how the patrons were inconvenienced!

Last Friday’s rupture left most of Shelter Island without functional plumbing through the late morning and the entire afternoon. The failed 63-year-old concrete pipeline began drenching the roadway in the 2300 block of Shelter Island Drive about 9 a.m., according to the San Diego Water Department. Workers determined that a corroded connector attaching two segments of the 12-inch-diameter main was the problem.

On January 14 a water main break in Little Italy shut down businesses there. Nearly 20 restaurants, six apartments and five other businesses were without water for most of the day. Fox News reported:

Trolley service between the Santa Fe Depot and Middletown Street was temporarily suspended, Metropolitan Transit Services officials said. Several businesses along India Street were flooded with several inches of water. “Not much you can do when you have water flowing in everywhere … about six inches up to my leg so I got soggy socks right now,” said Craig Mann, area manager for Burger Lounge restaurant. Mitigation crews dried the inside of the business and checked for potential water and mold damage. “None of the water got into the food production areas, it’s only on the ground so on that end it’s only superficial,” Mann said. “The health department has been on the street checking with the businesses … cleaning and sanitizing. We should be back open tomorrow.”

Well, this is par for the course. A lot of inconvenience because there are no adults in charge of repairing and replacing our infrastructure. They only tend to the fantasy land business of new football stadiums and new convention centers which translates into supporting billionaires in tights crashing into each other (giving each other concussions) and supporting the hotel and restaurant industry by guaranteeing a regular flow of tourist dollars.

People who actually live in San Diego are given short shrift. Repairing infrastructure is not as romantic, and we live in a fairy land where spectator sports and giving money to billionaires is more important than taking care of the needs of the hoi polloi.

On October 16, 2014 a massive sinkhole opened when a 30 inch water main broke in Oceanside.

In the US a water main breaks every two minutes. That’s a lot of water wasted. Besides, the cost of fixing a problem after it occurs is much more than that of fixing it in advance. We’re penny wise and pound foolish. Not too smart. But then hoopla and fol de rol take precedence over rational thinking and orderly planning.

corrodedwatermainWe will be entertained at all costs, even the cost of being inconvenienced or perhaps even killed by falling bridges and pot holed roadways.

On September 3, 2014 there was an enormous water main break in San Diego’s Birdland community in Serra Mesa when an 18 inch cast iron pipe broke. Roughly 2,600 customers had water service disrupted including four hospitals, among them Sharp Memorial, Sharp Mary Birch and Sharp Mesa Vista.

At Rady Children’s Hospital, the outage in water service happened while one surgery was underway. Water was also out at Juvenile Hall. Some cars parked on the road had water up to their bumpers. What a mess, eh?

The biggest and costliest water main break over the past eight years was on Polk Street in North Park on March 1, 2010. An estimated 24 million gallons flooded from a cast iron pipe into the street and surrounding homes. In all, the city paid about $1.4 million to make repairs, house people and settle property claims related to the main break.

Elsewhere in San Diego County a family was flooded out of their home after a water main break in Vista on September 24, 2014. Damage to the house was estimated at $100,000 with another $25,000 for furniture and furnishings. Vista firefighters gave the family a Target gift to help defray expenses.

On October 16, 2014 a massive sinkhole opened when a 30 inch water main broke in Oceanside. All northbound lanes on El Camino Real between Oceanside Blvd and Mesa Drive were shut down. A large storm drain pipe that runs atop the busted 30-inch water main was also damaged. It took about a week to open all lanes. A similar problem with a similar sinkhole happened on North River Road the previous year.

Since 2010, San Diego has paid at least $3.9 million for issues related to water main breaks. In 2013 alone, taxpayers shelled out $33,459 just for the cost of water that spilled into the street as a result of main breaks. The city estimates 6.6 million gallons gushed from ruptured mains in 2013. By comparison, that’s enough water for the average San Diegan for 205 years, according to the city’s estimated average daily use of 88 gallons per day.

As significant delivery lines are nearing the end of their service life across San Diego, mains are breaking at a pace of more than 100 a year, according to an analysis of city data by inewsource.

Those breaks plus tens of thousands of leaks have sent an estimated 360 million gallons of water rushing or seeping into streets, homes and businesses between 2004 and 2012. And this is at a time when water is getting scarcer and scarcer. We can’t afford any more to waste water in this way.

San Diego has paid out at least $10 million to settle claims and pay contractors for repairs to private property that was damaged by water main breaks during the past eight years. More than $350,000 of that was to house people forced from their homes by the breaks.

The same technology used in oil pipelines could be used in water pipelines obviating the necessity of digging up the pipeline in order to inspect it.

The city maintains that it is too expensive to do the routine inspections of water lines to see which ones are perilously close to collapse and need replacing. The city has inspected only about 5 1/2 of its 505 miles of large transmission pipelines since 2005, and none of its 2,958-mile network of smaller distribution pipelines.

broken water main grant hillThe city doesn’t know exactly where the biggest problems are. So they just throw up their hands and fix them when they break down regardless of the damage, inconvenience and property loss to San Diego citizens. Here’s a hint: replace all the 100 year old cast iron pipes first.

The city needs to replace rupture prone cast iron pipes with PVC which is not as apt to rupture. Only about 51 miles of the most rupture-prone cast iron pipes have been replaced since 2007. There are 129 miles to go.

Here’s an idea – smart pig technology, the kind that is used to inspect oil pipelines to see where the problems are: [smartpig.net]

Smart Pigs or Pipeline Inspection Gauges are large pieces of machinery pulled together with powerful technology that help with the maintenance of transmission pipelines. These pipeline pigging devices are major components to pipeline safety and accident prevention. These inspection tools provide data on the condition of pipelines which help gauge the health and integrity of the pipes. In a time where environmental protection is key and of global concern, smart pigs are the peacekeepers of the delicate relationship between pipelines and Mother Earth (and regulators). In addition, these smart pipeline pigs make sure that transmission of the product doesn’t stop due to pipeline integrity issues, which can be disasterous [sic] to the bottom line.

The same technology used in oil pipelines could be used in water pipelines obviating the necessity of digging up the pipeline in order to inspect it.

There are not many paid lobbyists lobbying for replacing old cast iron pipelines before they rupture like there are lobbying for new football stadiums and additions to convention centers. The wheelers and dealers will lobby the city to get their way first. Somehow there is always money available for such purposes while money for infrastructure is located in the pauper’s economy of vanishing funds.

Glitz and glamour predominate over levelheaded prudence as befits America’s finest city and second happiest place on earth (next to Disneyland). But hey, at least there’s less measles.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page January 28, 2015 at 9:56 am

Very good article. I will add a little something. Not performing routine replacement based on the age of the lines is much more serious when it is water mains compared to almost anything else underground. When a water main breaks, the pipe repair is usually a fraction of the damage costs. Water, especially water under pressure, is incredibly destructive. The damage caused to everything else by the water is amazing. I remember a construction company that hit a water main in Vista and an entire busy intersection was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. The company went out of business. Water mains, more than any other utility need diligent replacement, not doing so just increases the cost many, many fold.


John Lawrence January 29, 2015 at 9:51 am

And how do you figure the loss of business in affected areas. For instance, the water main break on Shelter Island affected all the restaurants there with the lunches and dinners never eaten. That doesn’t even figure into the losses as they calculate them.


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